Real-time monitoring revolutionizes water consumption

Most of us have an urgent list of Dos when we start our day, but before we check anything off that list, we make our pilgrimage to that holy shrine: our bathroom. Here we use the most precious element on earth — water — barely thinking about how it flows in and out of our homes. As water shortages rapidly increase we will have to rethink how we use this limited resource, and the key is likely in something called a real-time monitoring system.

In 2008, in the wake of a drought and the promise of more difficult years ahead, California Governor Schwarzenegger passed a law requesting a 20 percent reduction of water use by 2020, primarily by residents, thus setting the stage for innovation.

There is merit to legislative efforts, according to Marty LaPorte, associate director of Stanford University, Utilities Services and board member of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. “Those kinds of broad requirements are really great because they set up the framework, but are not so prescriptive that technology and innovation can’t have the freedom to  come up with better solutions,” she said.

With the Governor’s mandate looming, engineer Sharam Javey wondered how he could get a better handle on his own water consumption. “The only visibility into my water use was a bimonthly water bill in a unit that made little sense: CCF,” he said. (CCF is a measure of water volume in cubic feet.) After discovering that his utility company had no plans to roll out smart meters and that those on the market were too difficult to deploy, Javey, like any good engineer, decided to solve the problem himself. He founded Aquacue in 2009 to develop hardware and software for real-time monitoring of water use for cities, campuses and water utilities.

California, a large and arid state with highly competitive demands for water between commercial and residential properties, agriculture and industry, proves a great incubator for environmentally proactive solutions. “The Bay Area is an incredible location: vast amounts of can do attitude; experts to assist; mentors and customers willing to risk dealing with a startup,” Javey said.

“The beauty of real-time monitoring is that it’s factual,” La Porte said. The monthly reports she would previously have received delayed her team’s ability to detect and abate a leak in the system. When there was a problem, she would have to inquire with the users of the building, and this sense of Big Brother watching created tension between facilities management and her customers.

However, real time monitoring provides “unemotional” data which facilitates a solutions based orientation to correcting problems. When an anomaly occurs, everyone is quick to respond without any blame. While Stanford is testing other monitoring systems as well, LaPorte finds that the chief difference between them and Aquacue’s solution, aside from the friendly dashboard, is the absence of investment in infrastructure or need to dedicate real estate for a telephone relay system.

Water efficiency alone won’t secure our destiny. We also need to change behavior. Jim Genes, co-chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability and Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor, believes that technology is instrumental to spurring behavioral change. “The more that this information is in front of us in a painless, easy way, the more conversations can occur around the water cooler and the dinner table,” he said. Genes likes that Aquacue’s dashboard analytics are accessible by smart phone and the internet, seeing this feedback as key to influencing behavior, particularly among students.

Aquacue first hit the dorm scene at UC Merced in 2010. That’s when Genes, Javey and a Sophomore named Martin Figuero banded together to test out Aquacue’s fledgling  real-time metering system in a campus dorm water battle. A 30-day competition to reduce water use in the dorms in students promoted shorter showers, skipping showers, or jumping in with a BFF (racy  — and successful  — poster at left).

Genes said: “Students had virtually real-time feedback on their usage through their smart phones or internet dashboards. Competition between dorms was easily generated.” According to Figuero, Acaque’s solution allowed him and his team to dedicate about 75 percent more of their time to direct educational outreach, instead of data collection.

And now, the pilot program has expanded to all the buildings of the UC Merced campus. Figuero has gone on to win the prestigious Brower Youth Award for his conservation work at his college and is consulting throughout the state on how to set up water conservation campaigns at other schools.

Javey, who has been mentoring Figuero, urges students to “open their minds and try to realize their dreams and not just get an education to get a job. They should look around them, identify areas of their interest, find inefficiencies, and provide designs, systems, processes to eliminate these inefficiencies. The world is theirs to change and they can do anything they set their minds to.”

In April 2013, Aquacue was sold to Milwaukee based Badger Meter for $14 million.   “There is tremendous sense of accomplishment in taking a rough idea and turning it into one that people want to use, can create jobs and make the world a better place,” he said.

Babette Hogan is a documentary filmmaker and environmental activist.  

Babette Hogan
Babette Hogan is a documentary filmmaker and environmental activist.
Tags: Corporate Responsibility,Downtime,Technology