Water Use Feedback Changes Behavior

How much water do you use when showering, or washing your hands, or washing the dishes? Not how much does the average person use, but how much to you use? That’s what the team over at Teague Labs set out to find with this water usage feedback system. The sensor used is a Koolance flow meter which is intended to measure coolant flow in PC liquid cooling systems. At $20, it makes a nice low-cost sensor which was paired with a WiFi enabled Arduino. In the image above they’re using an iPad as a screen so that you can see how much water you’re using (or wasting) as you wash your hands. This resulted in saving 1/2 gallon of water every time someone washed their hands.

The project code, schematic, and board files are all available for download. Along with the hardware build there’s some nice server-side software that gathers and graphs the data over time. We’ve seen a lot of power-meter hacks, but it’s nice to have the option to track water usage, even if this is tailored to just one tap at a time.

26 thoughts on “Water Use Feedback Changes Behavior

  1. why can’t you plumb it to the main line coming off the pump? Then you would have the total water usage for the house. it would take me less than 20 min’s to install. not very hard to do at all.

  2. theodore – not everyone is comfortable doing that level of plumbing, and I wouldn’t want to have a piece of plastic in my main line – [if it breaks while you’re away, what will your insurance company say? Besides, nowadays most people have a water meter already – this is for local, not global feedback.

  3. @theodore if you watch the vid on their page it shows that people used less water when there was a realtime feedback of how much water they were using when washing their hands

    they go on to say how much water it can save and how you can give someone a lifetime of water for $20, i’m not sure how they’re doing the math for that but the end result is that people just use less water when it’s being monitored

  4. I wonder how much productivity would be lost to additional sick days if everyone was so “green”?

    With hospital administrators looking for low hanging fruit for cost cutting(other than administrative salaries of course) I just hope we don’t see surgeons subjected to this digital guilt trip.

    Showers are the more logical application IMHO.

  5. well you can have the monitor at the tap or collect the data on your computer. as for the plastic plumbers use plastic pipes all the time. I have some in my house and I live in canada, use a jet pump and have hot days and cold winters. never had a problem yet with the pipes. as for installing it if you can’t do it your self you probably can’t figure out how to install it at the tap. Plus what is the point of monitoring the water at the tap when you have other sinks toilets and shower that you don’t monitor?

  6. At last, something useful to quantify different users of same task. Even better yet, to measure my pet peeve.
    The amount of water wasted running up hot water thru uninsulated pipes, and the time wasted especially with the pee hole restrictions in new faucets and shower-heads. Make people wait longer for hot water, but don’t require that hot pipes be insulated to R-10 or higher. A bat of wall fill wrapped and tied will keep hot water on tap for an hour thru the coldest crawl space. Temperature contact measurements at the head of each pipe from under the deck coupled with flow should paint a clearer picture of a century of bad design, with layers of modern intervention.
    Hands free germ free, feet are free to do this task too. And don’t ever force people to use a thankless water heater, no thanks! They can not give a water conserving trickle of hot water, they switch off and back on. Go measure that waste too, before it over heats and almost starts a fire.

  7. This has been done, hardcore.

    HydroSense, the single-sensor whole-house water usage monitoring system.

    Since the household water system is a closed loop under pressure, their approach is to slap one sensor on this and monitor the change in pressure over time. It turns out that pretty much any use of water you do has a characteristic signal, to the point that it’s pretty easy to distinguish a toilet from a shower and so forth. Not in the least because the flow rate and typical use duration vary. You can even pin it down to the location in the house, so upstairs toilet versus downstairs.

    Most of the work is actually dedicated to trying to find ways to generalize information from one house to the next. The resulting signal is very dependent on the individual combination of fixtures and pipes and so forth. They’ve been trying (with quite a bit of success) to make it so that you can install the sensor without needing to do a lot of calibration against the specific house – which is what you’d want to start making these available to consumers en masse.

  8. The idea that less water use in our area will somehow translate to more water for those in dry areas who have no water is just preposterous. Even if I don’t use my faucet for a week, that doesn’t mean the water magically goes to Africa and comes out of someone else’s tap. It doesn’t work like that.

    I’m very sorry people are living in a desert, and water is very hard to come by, but that is not affected by my water use. The only thing affected positively by me using less water is my water bill.

  9. All these measures to reduce residential water usage are absolutely pointless. Agriculture uses two thirds of all freshwater, and upgrading a few dozen farms to drip irrigation will save far more water than thousands of homes with flow sensors. A great deal of water is lost by leaky mains pipes, too.

    It makes far more sense to go after the biggest wastes first, rather than the smallest.

  10. This is what I call a SOCIAL Hack in addition to it’s technical merit. As it’s got us thinking and discussing water conservation issues just by reading of it. Every house installing some incarnation of this and generating interest/awareness in family+friends is potentially more valuable as education than the few% of water the single install motivates saving.

    @johnnyjp: You’ve got a good basic concept in simply having an aerator packaged turbine with Tricolor LED+trivial processor for setting Red/Green alerts with some “warning” for operant conditioning.

    @echodelta: I am getting weird looks from my wife about how hard I laughed at your term “thankless” water heaters:} Yes- your description of them is spot on, as is the concept of simply insulating the plumbing.

    @Rachel: The chances of getting social pressure upon agribiz to improve their water management depend on social awareness like the featured Hack’s intent. It starts with each of us in some way. I *NEVER* thought the same way about water after having read Dune.

  11. For a faucet, the feedback device should be augmented with a timer to remind people to spend adequate time (20+ seconds) washing their hands.

    As noted above, undue focus on water conservation might lead to inadequate hygiene.


    A simple modification that might improve public health would be to add a timer display to sinks in public washrooms. Many sinks already have electronic controls to turn them on. That control should also initiate a timer that would remind one to wash hands for 20 seconds, and count down the time. (This could be done with or without the flow measuring device.)

    A more ambitious project might be to arrange sensors that note when a urinal or stall is used but the sink is not used, then issuing a reminder to those exiting the washroom to wash hands.

  12. When I first saw the device picture my immediate thought was they were using some sort of tiny turbine to give power to some usb device. Lol. I wonder how much energy could be harnessed from using some sort of device? I mean I know it would be pretty insignificant, but it would be neat to have the device that lets you know if you’re using too much water to be running off of the water itself eh? Is that possible?

  13. Toilet flushing is the biggest waste of water today, that’s dozens of liters per day for each person. Using only partially filtered rainwatrer for toilet flushing is a very cheap way to save drinkable one. Very nice project anyway.

  14. Guilt, guilt, guilt…

    Save water at your tap, when in fact the most water is lost in leaks, unmaintained by your city for eons, despite the same taking your taxes. Agriculture too, of course.

    Save gas, slow down and reduce the emissions of your car, when the biggest polluter is manufacturing. Gas prices can come up, refineries make profit, and you can’t complain, because it’s BAD to buy gas anyway!

    Take your own bags to the grocery store or buy them at 5 cents: when your shirt comes from India, your computer from China and your car from Japan or Korea, this pineapple was flown from Hawaii, half of the content of your grocery bag is imported!

    And to top it off, we are led to believe the planet’s temperature is going up. I vividly remember in the 70’s when they would talk of the next glaciation on TV. What kind of distance to we have? About seventy years since we first started to record temperatures? Ok, a century? In geologic terms, we’ve been on the planet a few seconds. What do we know?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t be cautious and take care of our planet.

    I’m just saying all these efforts to limit our “footprint” are spent in very inefficient ways.

    The real culprits continue to churn toxic gasses and will not be bothered, while we are left with guilt, and the idea that we are doing something useful when in fact we are not.


    I will continue to wash my hands, but I’ll probably stop drinking bottled water.

    I could use my car a year longer than initially planned, or try to go to work once a week with public transit. Or maybe I could just work four days a week. I don’t need all this money, do I? I’d save on taxes.

    I could buy my fruit vegetables from a local producer and refrain from having fresh strawberries in December. Note to myself: go to the market on foot.

    I could lobby my municipality so that they actually do something about those aqueducts.

    There are a million ways to “save the planet” that make a lot more sense than what we are presented with. Just use your brains and stop accepting everything you’re told.

  15. Actually, that tap wastes hotwater, it mixes when pulled up straight in the typical manner; so not really a proper feedback to the consumer when there is added energy wasted– not to criticize the hack, kudzu to you on that.

  16. Conservation of water? A great idea.

    Electronic gizmos to guilt people into conserving water? I dunno…these may not be as “green” as you think.

    Assume devices like this are manufactured and deployed on a large scale. How many gallons of fresh water will be consumed or befouled in the manufacture of the component ICs, sensors, LEDs and plastic accoutrements? How many gallons of water will be consumed or befouled in the production of the electricity needed to power all of these gizmos? Let’s not forget all of the oil that will be consumed, as well.

    Being green is not about guilt vs no guilt… and it’s not about reducing the impact of a single behavior while ignoring the damage caused by a litany of unintended consequences.

    Green is only green when a new technique, process, or tool reduces our systemic impact on the environment.

  17. @Oren Beck
    “The chances of getting social pressure upon agribiz to improve their water management depend on social awareness”

    Uhh how exactly would that happen? No amount of “social awareness” (by itself) will make agri-business change their ways. If simply being aware of a problem changed anything we’d have peace on Earth right now.

    “It starts with each of us in some way.”
    Your personal water-saving habits are not going to influence the activities of giant corporations. This is magical thinking that’s dangerously edging into “law of attraction/The Secret” territory.

  18. @P

    The concept you tagged as (by itself) inherently depends on having PRESENTED a REASON for change. Yeah, simply making people aware of a thing won’t do much. The “Social Hacking” realm begins where awareness starts to lead.

    Giant Corporate Entities are primarily concerned with perpetuating their self-interests. Meaning their stock values etc. SO?

    If we can leverage awareness into things that impact stock prices/market share, as direct sale effects for example? Then changes will swiftly follow. The cute gadget that shows Joe Sixpack how much energy or water his lifestyle uses has not a fraction of the impact (by itself) compared to his changing what brands of stuff he buys- or does NOT buy. Which often is a result of knowing, plus “Social Hacking” forces. Which makes for a rethinking of Kill-A-Watt concepts applied to water.

    It’s a non-trivial result chain to be truthful. When we’re trying to dam a Niagra Falls of wasting, every sandbag eventually adds up.

  19. “If we can leverage awareness into things that impact stock prices/market share, as direct sale effects for example?”

    How do you negatively affect the stock price of companies which literally feed the country?

    Hint: the so-called free market offers absolutely no solution for this. looks like you’ve been duped by the “vote with your wallet” propaganda (which i must admit is very clever)

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