Becoming Water Wise in Smart Homes

Connectivity has placed us solidly in a future that seemed like sci-fi fantasy 15 years ago. Today, our companions Siri and Alexa navigate, search the internet, and manage music playlists at the sound of our voice. Nest thermostats, too, have begun to learn our habits, tracking home energy use and automating climate control.

Now imagine that next Nest-level of connection, not just to websites, but to the smart things around us, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), and what that data could mean for household water use and conservation.

“Alexa, how will my water bill look if I schedule my irrigation system to turn on an hour earlier?” That kind of ability to monitor water use in real time and use instantly available predictive analytics for home water-related decisions is in the near future for some Coloradans.

While the hammering and construction continue, the first homes are standing fresh, awaiting new residents at Sterling Ranch, the master-planned development adjacent to Chatfield Reservoir in Douglas County. Every one of those new houses is a smart home, equipped with a fiber network to enable connectivity; some basic connected metering; and a user interface, called Steward, accessible by phone, tablet or computer like any other app.

For home or business owners in the community, Steward is the command center for information about neighborhood events, home security systems, and utilities. In addition to finding data on electric and natural gas use, homeowners can open Steward to check specific water use data in real time and see how that use pattern, if continued, will be reflected on their next monthly water bill. “Knowing that I’m consuming 2,000 gallons of water is interesting but it’s meaningless,” says Marty Skolnick, Siemens’ account manager for the Sterling Ranch project. “But if it’s monetized and I know that it’s $128 a month, that becomes more valuable because I can relate to it.”

Smart utility monitoring like this has been gaining popularity with water providers across Colorado. To keep them operational, utilities replace old water meters every 10 to 20 years, and are beginning to cycle in smarter meters, known as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). AMI enables two-way communication between a meter and the water provider so utilities can monitor their entire distribution systems hourly—providing powerful information that enables them to quickly spot or prevent leaks, develop water conservation plans, and enforce drought restrictions.

But AMI also creates the opportunity for households to interact with their own data. Fort Collins Utilities is among the many water providers that have upgraded to AMI with a goal of enhancing conservation data sharing. Through its online tool, Monitor My Use, Fort Collins water users can review their hourly usage, access conservation tips, and connect with utility personnel. They can also set alerts to receive texts or emails when they use more water than usual.

Utility staff are also able to use that AMI data to analyze use patterns and make suggestions for efficiency measures without having to visit a household or do a full water use audit, bolstering rebate and efficiency programming. “Our conservation dream is to help interpret and present the data to customers in ways that help them reach their [water efficiency and financial] goals in ways we couldn’t before,” says Liesel Hans, water conservation manager with Fort Collins Utilities. “We’re in the early stages of dreaming and testing, but there is a wide world of possibilities.”

At Sterling Ranch, residents have the opportunity to interact with a few more of those possibilities. Indoor and outdoor water use tracked monthly for billing purposes is the only information that leaves the house, says Brock Smethills, chief technology officer for Sterling Ranch. But there’s the potential for more. At closing, new homeowners can opt to share data, privately and in an anonymous randomized format, with researchers at Vanderbilt University in exchange for more detailed predictive analytics. For participating homeowners, Steward displays benchmarking data comparing a home’s water use today, this week, or this month, against some point in the past, like what it was a year ago, a month ago, or yesterday. It also compares a home’s water use to other similarly sized homes in the community.

“Now [the data] becomes meaningful from a benchmark and measurement standpoint and it also has a little bit of a flavor of a competitive environment, right?” Skolnick says. “Assuming you want to be a good steward of utility usage, you’re going to pay attention.” A number of recent studies have found monthly benchmarking on utility bills led people to consume 3 to 15 percent less water. If water use data is compared between households, not just monthly but in real time, there’s no telling how much farther water consumption will drop—though Smethills hopes for a 20 percent reduction.

Then there’s an even more precise level of data gathering and information, where all utility-consuming devices in a home, including every point of water use, will be connected and monitored—expanding the IoT in these houses. Through this data, Vanderbilt researchers hope to understand how residents use their homes and how they behave relative to utility consumption. The data could inform more user-friendly designs for future homes.

The first 20 households that opt into this high-level monitoring study will be fully equipped, fee free, with monitors and sensors on a circuit-by-circuit level. While it may seem like a lot, this minute level of data can help the consumer understand the financial implications of their choices, such as how a change in irrigation scheduling or landscape design would affect their water bill. It’s yet to be seen if those predictive analytics will change water use consumption, but homeowners, whether motivated by stewardship or their bank balance, will have data at their fingertips to make informed decisions.

The future will likely bring more predictive analytics to Sterling Ranch and beyond. “Eventually where we’d like to get is where homeowners will be able to say, ‘Here’s how much I’d like to spend on water’ and have the home manage around it, as opposed to the homeowner,” Smethills says. “If you look at home automation, that’s really where it needs to go in order to make sense.”

For the rest of us, maybe this level of home automation isn’t so far off either. Almost everything in the Sterling Ranch technology integration room is retrofittable to an existing community or district. The technology is there, and perhaps the desire is too.  Says Hans, “Data provides the indicator, how we present it creates the opportunity, and the customers choosing to make a difference is the magic.”


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