If the drought in California continues this winter, the state could run out of water in as little as a year. But despite the scary statistics, and a plea from Governor Brown for residents to cut water use by 20% earlier this year, a few places—like L.A.—are actually using slightly more water than before.
Part of the problem is that most people don't know how much water they're using at any given time. Water bills come long after the fact and don't say anything about how much is used in a specific place, like the shower. That's why a new gadget and app is designed to help make water use easier to track.
The Water Watcher device easily connects to pipes in any sink or shower. Using a flow sensor, it tracks exactly how much water is coming out of a tap. A small display shows a series of rings that illuminate every time a gallon flows by. An app keeps track of how is used over time.
"It gives a metric to what you actually can't see going down the drain," says Kelsey O’Callaghan, an interaction designer from Smart Design, the firm that developed the concept. "Over time, you're benchmarking against yourself and how you do from day to day. So after that individual session feedback, there's a glow to tell you if you're above or below your daily average."
As the team tested the prototype in their San Francisco office, they quickly noticed changes in their own behavior as they realized how much they were using. "We found that even for small things like washing their hands, no one knew how much water they were using," says creative director Dan Saffer. "As it turned out, it was often quite a lot. You could use several gallons just from a simple hand wash."
Though any individual change might be small—especially for something like washing hands—the aggregate savings over a neighborhood and a city would make a difference. "You can get to that 20% reduction fairly easily," Saffer says. "Just by paying attention and monitoring your water use."
One of the critical parts of the design was making sure it wouldn't be annoying—so people would actually want to use it. "We knew that one of the things that was going to really make a difference here was if it didn't feel like this intrusive, nagging action," Saffer explains. "We spent a lot of time trying to make it ambient, in the background, but still observable. In your house, you just don't want something nagging you to save water all the time."
The device hasn't been produced yet, but Smart Design is considering a Kickstarter campaign to bring it to life, or partnering with water utilities.