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  • 08.05.14

An App That Tracks Water Use In Real Time, So Californians Can Save In The Drought

Partnering with utility companies, Dropcountr is letting residents know for the first time how much water they are actually wasting.

An App That Tracks Water Use In Real Time, So Californians Can Save In The Drought

Three years into California’s worst drought in half a millennium, most of the state’s residents still aren’t saving water. Water usage actually ticked slightly upward earlier this year, despite the governor’s call in January for voluntary 20% cuts. Part of the problem: Most people don’t have any idea how much water they’re using. Now there’s an app for that.

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Dropcountr, now available both online and as an iPhone app (and coming on Android September 1), monitors water use daily so it can send daily reports showing trends over time. If the app notices unusually high numbers, it warns someone that they might have a leak. They can also see how much they’re using compared to neighbors with homes of a similar size.

“The first response we get from folks is, ‘Wow, I had no idea that I used that much water,'” says Robb Barnitt, CEO of Dropcountr. “That’s really the first piece we’re trying to deliver–transparency and visibility. It’s really tough to gain much insight from your water bill.”

Most California utilities send out water bills once every one or two months, so it’s hard for consumers to take that information and make changes. In a few places, including Bakersfield and parts of Sacramento, homes don’t even have water meters at all, and just pay a flat bill.

“It’s really difficult to understand how much water you’re using, or whether that’s reasonable and appropriate based on your household size,” Barnitt says. “We’ve taken a social approach, where we compare a given account to others like them. We’ve seen that’s a powerful motivator in similar programs on the energy side. People are very interested in how they compare to others.”

The startup is beginning to partner with utilities and talking to property management companies so they can bring the same information to renters, who often don’t pay for water or ever see data on how much water they’re using.

Soon, the app will also break down the data, using algorithms to determine how someone’s using water based on the patterns of flow. “It’s really easy to figure out what something like outdoor irrigation looks like,” Barnitt says. “Appliances are also easy to understand.”

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The app also reminds customers of rebates from their utility, and sends notifications about new regulations, like the state’s current $500 fine for overwatering lawns or wasting water washing sidewalks and driveways.

The only catch? It’s not available for every utility yet. Dropcountr is working quickly to partner with as many of the state’s 440 water agencies as possible, and it also added a feature to the app so customers can “poke” their utility to ask it to share real-time data.

Utilities already collect the information, and it’s just a matter of finding someone in-house with the right IT skills to connect with the platform. There’s an incentive for them: Besides helping encourage customers to save water, the platform also comes with a dashboard for utilities to easily track their own total usage. “We help them understand, in an intuitive and visual way, water usage in their service area,” Barnitt says.

Surprisingly, that data hasn’t been easy for utilities to easily track, and until recently, it wasn’t something that the state asked them to regularly report. The state water board recently admitted that it doesn’t actually know exactly how much water is in use across the state.

At a time when some towns are only a few months away from running out of water completely, that should change. Maybe Dropcountr will help.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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