The City of Greeley, Colorado is located in a semi-arid climate, receiving 12-14 inches of precipitation per year. During a drought, Ruth Quade, Greeley’s Water Conservation Coordinator, needed to come up with the right solution to stimulate greater drought awareness and conservation actions on the part of ratepayers. After exploring several options, Ruth and her Greeley colleagues decided to implement a water budget system.
THE CHALLENGE: COMMUNICATE EFFICIENCY
Water budgets are calculated amounts of water a household will require each month, based on the size of the family, the number and types of fixtures, and landscape needs. When facing supply constraints, water budgets are an increasingly popular tool for utilities interested in sending conservation messages to their customers. As Ruth explained, “Metering tells us, and the customer, how much they are using. Budgets tell how much they should be using.”
Setting budgets and deciding how to implement them is often challenging, and can be logistically and politically fraught. What is the “right” usage limit to set for your customers? How does one strike a balance between budgets that community leaders and constituents will accept, and those that will manage demand?
STRIKING A BALANCE
The City Council was reluctant to make budgets too strict as they primarily wanted to target the least efficient users. To address this, the utility proposed setting the budgets based on an assumed increase in the average number of people in a household from 2.8 to four.
This allocation structure would only impact people who were substantially over their water budgets. It would also give residents room to improve their water-use efficiency without penalization. The budgets turned out to be technically difficult to administer, but finally, in 2011, Greeley launched their water budget program.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
In the early phases of the program, Ruth and her colleagues observed that most people weren’t reading, or didn’t understand, the budget information provided on the water bills. This is a common communication challenge for water providers, as consumers frequently do not take the time to read their often difficult-to-understand utility bills. A few years later, Greeley partnered with VertexOne to help address this issue.
Greeley worked with VertexOne to better communicate water consumption and budgets, and to specifically target users who had not taken advantage of rebates for efficiency appliances or other conservation programs. To achieve this, they presented the water budget information on Home Water Reports. Customers were more likely to pay attention to the water budget program in this form because the reports were easy-to-read, aesthetically appealing, and sent separately from the water bill. In addition, customers on electronic billing—who didn’t regularly see their bills or receive inserts on conservation programs—received the Home Water Reports.
Through this outreach process, Greeley took advantage of VertexOne’s technology and services as a customer communication tactic, and also as a powerful analytical tool to help refine data accuracy and improve water-use efficiency. Ruth and her team discovered that VertexOne was able to significantly increase the impact of the water budget program by providing more accurate water consumption information to Greeley households.
FINE-TUNING THE MODEL
While this modified communication method improved customer response to the water budget program, there were still discrepancies surrounding the content of the messaging. It was a nuanced issue that no one had considered until VertexOne’s Utility Analytics Dashboard revealed it. Recall how, at the onset the program, Greeley constructed the water budgets based on a four-person-per-household average occupancy assumption. While this softened the stringency of the budgets, it led to a misinterpretation of residents’ water consumption.
The high occupancy assumption resulted in Home Water Report savings recommendations that focused on indoor use throughout the year, which didn’t address the reality of outdoor irrigation during the summer. “Surprisingly” Ruth states, “residents actually wanted greater accuracy. Many went as far as to self-report occupancy numbers lower than our assumptions, even though the impact was to reduce their water budget.” VertexOne Software identified that the overly generous budgets were giving the wrong signal to households about their use and ways they could save.
The original water budgets that Greeley developed were designed to selectively target high consumers. With the use of VertexOne’s Utility Analytics Dashboard, and the support of VertexOne’s Client Services staff, Greeley discovered that these budgets were negatively impacting conservation efforts. A significant number of customers were under their water budgets each period, and thus, were not receiving additional signals to conserve.
ANALYTICS WITH IMPACT
Armed with improved data accuracy provided by VertexOne, Ruth and her team were able to go back to the City Council and make the case for more restrictive budget allocations. Greeley agreed to adjust the occupancy estimates and lower the water budgets. That decision led to more relevant messaging and increased conservation performance based on verified data about residents’ actual behavior. During summertime, Home Water Report messaging strongly emphasized outdoor irrigation, the major source of summer water usage. The result: within six months of this change, customers who received the Home Water Reports showed increased responsiveness to rebates, higher degrees of budget compliance and water-use efficiency improvements of 4.1%
Ruth says, “If our entire community continues to be responsible with their consumption, then we’ll have plenty of supply and be prepared during the next drought.”