Even after returning home, snowbirds with vacant condos in Hollywood, Fla., can now catch water leaks early on.

A new program lets Hollywood residents sign up for free, automatic emails when there is a spike in their relative water usage, or usage over a four-day span, when compared to the last 30 days.
 
"So until you get a bill, you may not have known that you had much higher consumption," said Alessandro Di Sciascio, who is the systems and programming manager for the City of Hollywood. The notification system saves unknowing citizens that wait and shock of a leak running all month by warning them early of the possibility, he said. 
 
The city's High Use Notification program began signing people up in May 2013, according to Joann Hussey, public information manager for the city. 
 
Hollywood offers rebates on water savers and also has water conservation programs, she said, so it made sense to give residents a heads up on their water usage by tapping into the city's existing twice-daily Wi-Fi meter updates. 
 
Director of Information Technology John Barletta first read about a similar notification system in Washington, D.C., known as the High Usage Notification Application. Washington's application, which debuted in January 2006, has since generated 18,000 notifications, according to its website.
 
Hollywood officials talked extensively with the municipality about the application and used it as a model, Di Sciascio said, but tailored its own program for south Florida, where people play in pools and water grass year around. Therefore, Hollywood's program didn't have to account for seasonal jumps in water consumption.  
 
According to Di Sciascio, the program benefits mostly smaller consumers, like families in single-family homes, because a leak there would be more obvious than at a hotel. 
 
A surprise finding during the city's research, though, is that the program also may benefit homeowners who aren't on their properties for some part of the year, or who own but are leasing. Once notified, they can send a plumber to inspect for leaks. This group of beneficiaries was unearthed during the two-month testing phase when they found that many Hollywood homes go without any water use for a period of time and then suddenly have high consumption. 
 
However, bumps in consumption in any home can be explained by uncommon events like residents filling up their pools, moving in, or hosting family or friends. That's why the email alerts mention these possibilities so that residents can rule them out as reasons for higher-than-normal consumption. If a leak might be the cause, they can use the city's website to watch videos to learn how to inspect for one.  
 
During the testing phase, Di Sciascio became a guinea pig and received the e-mails that would have otherwise gone out to the city's recent batch of high-water consumers. He received about 30 to 40 emails a day, compared to Hollywood's total population of 140,000-plus residents.
 
Balance has been key to the notification program -- officials wanted to catch water leaks without notifying residents too frequently. For that reason, it took months of pouring over a year's worth of raw data for the city to get the right variable with which to multiply daily water consumption to get the high-consumption threshold, which is substantial. For a resident, it might be something like 20 showers, Di Sciascio said. 
 
"We didn't want to SPAM people. We were very concerned about sending out emails that would immediately get people to delete the emails and not look at them," he said.
 
That's also why the program is designed to notify residents of only one four-day period of high-water usage in the last 15 days -- so, a max of about twice per month. 
 
Indeed, there's even a rationale for the four-day span, suggested by Washington, D.C. That time period guarantees that weekends aren't given to much weight, since water use tends to be higher when fewer family members are away at work or school for much of the day. 
 
Although the notification program took about seven months to research, design, test and write, it didn't cost the city anything, as existing staff fit the work into their schedules, Di Sciascio said. In addition, the city already had meters capable of sending the Wi-Fi readings.
 
The information technology department has also used the same process and data to create a smaller daily report for holders of foreclosed properties to alert them to water use while a property sits vacant. 
 
The program can also detect if meters are reading backwards because of a faulty meter or meter installation and will notify the resident to call a city technician. 
 
Residents who pay their water bill online are automatically candidates for the program's alerts, and ones who don't can still sign up on the website for the notifications, according to Hussey. 
 
Going forward, the city has other ideas to enhance the program, like using different ratios for consumption to better catch leaks for larger users. Someday, Di Sciascio, said, 15-minute Wi-Fi updates could alert users to small, slow leaks and could flag homeowners to check for a running toilet, which is the No. 1 residential water waster, he said.   
 
Until then, Di Sciascio said, he's satisfied with catching the big water leaks, and notifying those snowbirds who make the program particularly useful in Florida. 
 
"If 39 of the 40 emails is false but one person (with a leak) gets notified, we feel that's a success," he said. 
Jessica Hughes  |  Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.