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Real-Time Data Helps Iowa Households Lower Their Water Bills

A partnership between IBM and Dubuque, Iowa, is affirming a widely held assumption: Real-time water data actually helps consumers reduce their consumption.

As more utility companies have introduced smart metering and provided customers with real-time analytics about their consumption, the prevailing thought is that the data will help households make informed choices.

A partnership between IBM and Dubuque, Iowa, is demonstrating that this widely held assumption is likely true. A pilot provided a few hundred customers on the city with detailed water usage data slashed their consumption by 6.6 percent, with further savings anticipated.

Called the Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Water Pilot Study, 303 households in Dubuque took part in the program, which connected smart water meters to IBM’s Research Cloud. Statistics were compiled on water use for three months, from September to December 2010. The data was compared with prior usage data from the past two years and was used by residents to evaluate and alter their patterns of water use.

The information collected was presented to 151 homes in the program via an online portal, with the other 152 residencies serving as a control group with identical water meters but without access to the data analysis. Residents with access to the Web portal could view their water consumption in near real time — the meter transmits data in 15-minute increments — and they also received notifications about potential leaks.

The portal, which utilizes IBM’s cloud computing, fostered a sense of engagement and conservation competition among users, according to David Lyons, project manager of Smarter Sustainable Dubuque.

Web portal users were able to compare and contrast the data anonymously with others in their community.

Those accessing the online statistics also could earn “green points” for entry into contests for sustainability-related prizes, such as low energy usage lighting and insulation kits. Community members were able to take part in online chats through the portal.

After the initial nine-week period, the 152-home control group was also given access to their data in the Web portal and those users’ water consumption improved in a similar manner to the first group, according to Lyons.

“It’s not huge numbers, but they are very solid and show consistent savings,” Lyons said, regarding the 6.6 percent in water savings. “These households are still on the system and we’re continuing to see very consistent improvement.”

Some of the specific results included:

  • A savings of 89,090 gallons of water among 151 households over nine weeks; extrapolated to a full year, this would be a savings of 515,000 gallons, or 3,400 gallons per household annually.
  • Assuming that the 151 households are a fair sample of the city of Dubuque, the aggregate annual communitywide water savings across 23,000 households with smart meters in the city would be nearly 65 million gallons. This would result in an aggregate water bill savings of $191,000 each year. 
  • Fifty-six households that used the portal multiple times reported the most benefits and they include: 77 percent said that the water portal increased their understanding of their water use; 70 percent felt it helped them assess the impacts of the changes they had made; and 48 percent felt that it helped them conserve water.
  • In addition, the city saw an eightfold increase in response to potential water leaks in citizens’ homes.

Building a Model

While the initial water pilot program has concluded, Lyons said that the next step is to expand it to several thousand residencies in Dubuque and ultimately have enough data to present it to the mayor and City Council for potential use citywide.

But water isn’t the only utility the model is being used for in the city. Lyons said Dubuque is starting similar pilot programs with electricity and natural gas and there are plans for pilots dealing with resident travel patterns and health issues.

Smarter Electricity is next up in the pipeline. Lyons revealed that Dubuque has partnered with Alliance Energy and IBM for the electricity pilot program that will involve 1,000 homes. He explained that 1,000 advanced electrical meters with near real-time data about electrical usage have been installed and users will get access to their Web portals in June. Smarter Natural Gas will follow later this year.

The overall goal is to utilize all the utility data to make a permanent change in the health of communities and residents.

“Dubuque and IBM are trying to develop a model for communities of 200,000 people or less,” Lyons explained. “The theory is data in one silo of resources becomes the ability to make informed changes in all silos of resources.”

For more information on Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, visit the city’s website.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.