Why smart meter data is the ‘gold dust’ that can drive water efficiency

Following the UK’s record-breaking summer heatwave, it is unsurprising that water scarcity has been at the forefront of the public consciousness in recent months.

But at a recent roundtable hosted by Utility Week, in association with Capita, experts questioned whether enough is being done to help consumers truly understand the value of water beyond a summer of extreme weather. Concerns were also raised about the disjointed and often overlapping engagement campaigns and resources from individual water companies.

During the event, attendees explored the scope for the water sector to take a more holistic approach to water scarcity, while helping customers to understand their responsibility to reduce demand. The need for companies to work closely with other stakeholders, including the energy sector, was also discussed.

One water efficiency lead said: “As water companies, we’re not going to achieve this on our own. It needs to be a message that comes from a variety of sources. For example, we need water efficiency to be part of future national energy efficiency programmes. We need it to be a coherent, nationwide approach to messaging and campaigns. We need policy change from government and we need action from other stakeholders so the message is out there at scale.”

Another water executive said: “We need to tap into helping customers understand the value of water. It’s an essential, valuable product and life can’t exist without it. There needs to be a nationwide message which is strong on using water wisely. But, I agree, we [water companies] can’t do that alone.”

There was consensus among attendees that more work must be done to help customers understand the link between water usage and energy bills, particularly in light of the current cost of living.

One said: “People just don’t make that connection. The biggest element is how we create an emotional connection with our customers to educate and help them understand. It’s not something we’ll achieve in one year. It’s something we need to continually develop and build.”

However, they added: “It’s not just around what our customers need to do, we [water companies] need to be credible. We need to accept that we waste more water than our customers. We need to talk about what we’re also doing to waste less water.”

While much of the debate focused on the concerns facing domestic customers, there was broad acknowledgment that business customers must not be left behind when it comes to addressing water efficiency.

A water company representative said that reducing usage has slipped down the priority list for many businesses as they tackle the challenges arising from the economic crisis. They added: “Other things have a habit of taking over sometimes, but we’re finding that if we push consistently on one message around water efficiency, we start to get some traction.

“By far and away, the area we focus on most with our business customers is leakage detection and repair. If they understand they have a leak, most of the time they want to fix it. They understand the idea that if they’re using water when they don’t need to, then they’re wasting it. That’s money that could be in their pocket.”

To support behaviour change across both business and domestic customers, attendees agreed that data is a vital tool. As part of the drive to collect more usage data and insight, one water efficiency expert added that the smart meter programme is pivotal in the effort to engage and educate customers.

They said: “The data from smart metering is gold dust and it gives us a valid reason to nudge customers to want to be bothered about saving water. But we need that to be standard. That’s our only eyes and ears on what and how water is being used.

“It’s also about the value of water and trying to tap into how to encourage a customer to be bothered about their usage.”

According to analysis from Waterwise, fitting one million smart water meters in the UK each year for the next 15 years could result in saving at least one billion litres of water a day (1,000 Mld) by the mid-2030s.

However, there was agreement among attendees that urgent action is needed to ensure the smart meter rollout gathers pace.

One water company executive concluded: “We’ve still got a huge volume of the country that is not metered. How do you fix a problem if you can’t measure it?

“We often don’t know where the problem is. We’ve got no compulsory metering, no smart meter requirement across the country. We’re behind Kenya, we’re behind shanty towns in Southeast Asia as far as that agenda goes. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Helping customers connect the dotsJason McKinley, client partner – water sector, Capita

The need to change individual, business and community water consumption behaviours has never been greater. A fundamental shift is essential to achieve community-wide and state-wide water conservation targets, as well as addressing water security in the near future.

It is clear that smart meter installation and monitoring are critical in driving short- and long-term water conservation behaviours. However, there are enduring questions around the efficacy of smart metering programmes. How can utilities ensure they get the metering data they want, how reliable is this information, and what can they do with it? But, most importantly, how can utilities feed this data back to customers and help drive behaviour change?

To truly support customers in reducing consumption, the smart water meter programmes must be aligned with behavioural science insights. As such, companies have the opportunity to regularly engage with customers by offering advice that responds to household water consumption patterns, while also emphasising critical water saving goals and motivations.

As well as improving awareness and education around water scarcity, utilities must seize the opportunity to help customers understand the link between water usage and energy bills. In light of the current inflation and cost of living crisis, households are likely to be more receptive to this message.

While spiralling energy costs often grab the most headlines, many customers are not yet aware of the impact water usage can have on household bills. On average approximately 25% of energy used in the home is to heat water. It is vital that customers understand that using less water also means using less energy and, ultimately, reduced household bills.

There is more to be done by companies and government alike to help UK consumers join up the dots, and be able to evidence how smart water meters can help reduce household bills and empower consumers to help them play their role in conserving water. By working with the cohort of consumers that are more engaged, these groups could become advocates of smart meters, championing water consciousness and helping drive forward the necessary step-change.

This roundtable took place following the publication of a report by Utility Week and Capita exploring how water companies are driving water efficiency and improving engagement with consumers