In the middle of California’s record-breaking drought in 2015, as the state asked residents to cut water use 20%, Santa Cruz-based entrepreneur Keri Waters noticed another statistic: in a typical American house, around 10% of water used is lost to leaks. As some Californians showered less often or let their lawns turn brown, many were missing the simpler approach of fixing those leaks–because it isn’t necessarily obvious that a leak exists.
A new device, developed by Waters and her team, is designed to help homeowners better understand where their water goes. Buoy attaches to a home water line and connects to Wi-Fi. As water flows through pipes, the system uses machine-learning algorithms to identify whether the water is going to a shower or sprinkler or washing machine. If there’s a leak, an app connected to the system gives the homeowner the option to shut off water remotely and call a plumber. If the system identifies that a large amount of water goes to a certain activity–such as watering a lawn–it can also help someone identify where to make strategic changes.
Though the idea began in California, the technology is meant to address a larger problem: Water bills are rising across much of the United States and will soon rise more as utilities struggle with the cost of replacing aging infrastructure and, in some places, more frequent droughts driven by climate change. In cities where populations are declining, those rising costs are even more prohibitive because they’re split between fewer people. A study in early 2017 estimated that within five years, the number of U.S. households that find water bills unaffordable would triple from 11.9% to 35.6%. Buoy is meant to help people cut unnecessary water use to avoid the largest bills.
For a device that considers itself as a solution to an affordability problem, Buoy is expensive: The technology, along with installation from a licensed plumber and a lifetime subscription to the service, costs $799. Homeowners who already have trouble affording water bills–including many people in Detroit, for example–won’t have the cash to buy the first iteration. But for the target group, homeowners with a little more disposable income, it could help.
“If you’re in the half of the country that’s already facing tiered water prices and high water bills, Buoy pays for itself in about a year,” says Waters. In beta tests that began in January 2017, the company saw that the average user was wasting 9.5% of their water in leaks. If a typical house leaks 10% of its water, she says, fixing that could save someone 13,000 gallons of water in a year, at a cost that might range between $300-$400. An increasing number of water utilities are also charging steep penalty bills for excessive use. “It [could be] $1,500 if you have a sprinkler head that breaks for a few days,” she says.
Homeowners can also save more by identifying where they use the most water. One beta user, for example, saw that he was using around 80 gallons of water each day to handwash dishes. A modern dishwasher uses about three gallons for a load. Because he lives in San Antonio, where water prices are high, he calculated that he could offset the cost of a new dishwasher in about a year. As the app develops, it will make more suggestions along these lines.
The company also wants to make the product affordable for everyone over time, including those who struggle most to pay water bills. Waters makes an analogy to Tesla. “They had to start with a segment of the population that could afford to invest in revolutionary new technology and then they’re able to cost-reduce it and bring it to everybody,” she says. “I think we have that same ethos.”
A similar device, called Water Hero, which detects leaks but doesn’t yet have the ability to distinguish which appliances are using water at a given time, comes in a version that costs $499 and doesn’t require professional installation; other versions cost as much as $799 for a larger pipe. Dropcountr, another similar device, is offered only through certain utilities and doesn’t offer the ability to remotely shut off water when leaks are detected. (Insurance companies, which spend billions on damage from leaks each year, may be particularly interested in the leak-shutoff feature and could offer discounts to consumers who own the technology.)
As pressure increases on traditional sources of water, and aquifers or reservoirs are drained, Waters envisions that Buoy could help enable a shift to new technology. Devices that harvest water from the air, for example, or greywater systems, are available now–but to use them, people need more data than a simple water bill provides.
“Let’s say I wanted to buy greywater for my house,” says Waters. “Just looking at my water bill isn’t enough. You have to know how much outdoor watering [you do] versus how much do you generate with showers and washing machines that could be used as greywater.”
She thinks that new water technology is in a similar position as home solar panels were at the turn of the century; a system to go fully off the water grid now costs roughly $40,000, about as much as home solar panels did in 2001. Rolling blackouts in California in 2001 helped lead to changes that spurred the growth of solar. The drought might do something similar.
“We’re just embarking on a grand vision to try to remake our relationship with water,” she says. “The way I see it, big picture, we’ve been able to take water for granted for a long time. It’s been so heavily subsidized–it’s more subsidized as a resource than oil–and that’s changing. Now that’s a challenge for us as homeowners in this country, but it’s also an opportunity, in that it’s allowing us to really take a look at what kind of world we want to live in, and what kind of control we want to have over the water in our home.”