The Promise and Reality of Digital Water Meters

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is the first water department in the State of California to roll out digital water meters for every residential and commercial connection, all 180,000 of them. Digital water meters can update customers with their cumulative water usage in near realtime (every 24hrs). This information could radically increase conservation thanks to the principle of a feedback loop. However, current implementation is falling short of this.

A feedback loop is where information is provided within a decision making context that can influence behavior. The most common example of this is the speedometers that tell you how fast you are going. These devices have proven more effective than any other in convincing people to obey the speed limit. Possible reasons for this are that the speedometer signs remind us that our speed is public knowledge and that the sign rewards us by blinking less or going from red to green when we’ve slowed down.

Apply the feedback loop concept to water and you quickly realize that we get very little information about our water usage in context. Once a month, or every other month we get a water bill. But on any given day, we don’t know how much water we’ve used that month or what our water bill is so far.

Automated water meters offer the promise of changing that, giving us information about how much water we’ve used within the last 24hrs. If we see that our bill is higher than say, $100, we might be inclined to use less.

With a digital water meter in every home and app developers on every corner, San Francisco would seem the perfect location to test this. However, San Francisco’s current implementation is NOT focused on getting water usage data in front of consumers. The digital water meters were installed mostly to replace extremely old and extremely inaccurate old analogue meters. Heather Pohl, Manager of the SFPUC’s Automated Water Meter Program explains, this made most sense to the agency from a business intelligence standpoint.

All hookups in SF now use digital water meters. Photo courtesy of

Customers can get their near real-time information online at the SFPUC customer portal, but only 7% of customers have logged in and 66% of those never come back. The information is there, but it’s not being provided in an easily accessible way. It’s certainly not being provided in context, when someone is using water, in a way that could influence them to use less.

According to the SFPUC, usage of the data as a conservation tool is not a priority. The reason? San Franciscan’s use only 44 gallons per person per day, well below the CA state average of 106 gallons per person per day. The agency already feels pretty good about these usage numbers and is cautious about spending money to try and decrease them further.

But what about SoCal districts? The ones driving the statewide average up? There is huge potential for information to encourage better water usage habits in more wasteful regions.

While implementing a full fledged digital water meter program is expensive, a 500 home or less test using these meters to influence decision making is warranted. Different notification devices could be tested, whether it’s smart phone alerts or just a wall unit that displays gallons and bill-to-date information.

One thing is for sure, people can survive off of 30 gallons of water per day or less. The Australians proved this during their 12 year drought. If Californians are going to beat the drought, experimenting with new methods is a must. Why not the kind of data driven approach that has worked so well for entrepreneurs growing businesses in the state?

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