Photograph by Alistair Guthrie
With a global water crisis looming, Digital Water thinks we should be managing the planet’s most precious commodity with something a little more sophisticated than an on/off tap.
With a global water crisis looming, New Zealand-based Digital Water thinks we should be managing the planet’s most precious commodity with something a little more sophisticated than an on/off tap.
CEO Richard Gill says the problem is this: there aren’t enough effective ways to manage the fresh water we have left. The biggest aquifer in the US may have as little as 20 or 30 years of supply at current consumption rates, and desalination is too energy intensive to be used on a large scale.
It’s hard to know what we can do. Even if you did know how much water was appropriate to use, how would you measure that except by paying close attention to your water meter? Gill says Digital Water is the answer, turning traditional household plumbing into a completely digital, computer-controlled system.
Current plumbing systems usually only have one valve to control a whole house while Digital Water’s design has several, each controlling a different area of the home. The software constantly monitors each of those areas. So if you have a leak, the system will automatically shut off the flow to that area and alert the owner to the problem. It has a few other bells and whistles too, such as a sensor on the shower nozzle that slows the water flow to a dribble if you’re taking too long to hop in after waiting for it to heat up.
“If we can reduce the amount of water consumed by households by 40 to 50 percent, that has a dramatic impact on the amount of water that needs to be sourced and supplied,” says Gill. “And unlike energy or gas, there’s a waste product that needs treatment. So reduce consumption by 50 percent, and you also reduce wastewater by 50 percent. “
He says the data gathered from system monitoring will enable users to compare their current usage with their past records, and even with current usage of nearby neighbours—and therein lies the make-or-break of the system. It requires buy-in from its users to effect any conservation in scale.
“There’s a trend now to build social networks around apartment buildings,” Gill says. An apartment complex with an inbuilt Digital Water system would allow users to evaluate themselves against others in the complex in terms of water consumption. “You don’t want to be the one using three times as much as the average.”
In this way, Digital Water motivates change in the user, who can use their data to set goals for the home such as limiting showers to five minutes or lowering the water pressure. But the system won’t have complete control, and can be easily overridden. Gill says the system doesn’t mandate conservation, but encourages it through targets.
With Digital Water entering field-testing now, Gill says it’ll probably be another five years before it will be available. He envisions the system initially being introduced into already water-stressed areas in the US and the Middle East.
New Zealand may not be immune to the water crisis, but the market for such a system doesn’t yet exist here. When it does, Digital Water’s effectiveness really depends on whether or not users will actually engage in its potential to conserve water.