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Water saving ‘needs Blue Planet moment'

Digital innovation and smart meters are helping water utilities in the fight to drive down water consumption, but water saving is yet to make the same impression in the public consciousness as other environmental issues, speakers agreed at the Waterwise annual conference.

Digital innovation and smart meters are helping water utilities in the fight to drive down water consumption, but water saving is yet to make the same impression in the public consciousness as other environmental issues, speakers agreed at the Waterwise annual conference.

The conference in London discussed the challenge of reducing domestic water consumption to 100 litres per person per day, as EA chief executive Sir James Bevan sounded a warning that taps in the UK could run dry within 25 years if significant action is not taken.

John Devall, Head of Asset Planning and Strategic Investment at Severn Trent, said that while the water industry had driven down overall water demand since the 1990s, this had been to a large extent the result of falling industrial demand and a reduction in leakage, while per capita consumption (PCC) has only come down by a relatively modest amount. He said that to “move the dial” on water saving the industry needed to something akin to the BBC’s Blue Planet programme which is widely credited with shifting public opinion on plastic pollution.

“Something has got to change,” said Devall. “What’s the ‘Blue Planet moment’ for water? That’s what we need to change attitudes and to make sure that all the hard work is not to be wasted.”

Severn Trent conducted its own public awareness campaign on water saving during the hot summer of 2018, which included TV adverts seen by 3.5 million people and Facebook posts which had 2.5 million impressions. Its customer survey during this time found that 75% of customers said they would try to use less water ‘if asked’ and that 69% felt that it was reasonable for their water company to ask them to use less water in a heatwave. These numbers show that progress still needs to be made.

Paul Glass, Smart Metering Programme Manager at Anglian Water, told the conference about the utility’s trials of AMI smart meters, which have provided hourly readings on water use in the trial areas of Newmarket and Norwich. The trial resulted in a 11.5% water saving compared to a control group without the smart meters. Interestingly, customers who had the meters fitted but remained on a flat rate for the purposes of their bill showed some of the highest water savings, revealing how people’s reasons for reducing water use are not purely financial.  

He also highlighted how the trial had helped identify customer-side leaks, with 866 such leaks addressed in Newmarket alone. The trial showed how leaking toilets, in particular malfunctioning push-button toilets, could be incredibly wasteful.

“Push-button toilets are supposed to save water, but can only do this if they are working,” said Glass. “Our experience has been that push-button toilets have a high risk of not working well, and when this is the case it can result in large amounts of water being lost.”

Thames Water has installed 300,000 AMI smart meters so far in London and receives 7.4 million meter reads a day. Andrew Tucker, Water Efficiency Manager at Thames Water, said that metering was the ‘bedrock’ of water saving, as it was very difficult to approach the challenge of reducing consumption until there is accurate measurement.

“The detail given by smart meters can shine a light on a previously dark place, which is customer-side leaks,” said Tucker. “Many customers have had these for a long time and have simply been unaware of it.”

As positive evidence of how customers could respond to prompts on water saving, he highlighted the utility’s initiative to send SMS text messages to customers during last year’s hot summer asking for voluntary restraint on the use of water. This tactic made a genuine difference over a short time period, he said.

“It is a short-term fix, but it shows that customers when spoken to about water saving in their area can be very responsive, and we thank them for it,” he told the conference.

Author: James Brockett,
Topic: Water resources
Tags: smart meters , water consumption , Waterwise

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