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Most water customers in Australia say water efficiency is important to them, but how can utilities actually support their customers to make the changes needed to conserve water and reduce costs? South East Water has partnered with the University of Melbourne on several technology-based trials to see what impact real-time data from digital meters can have on reducing household water usage, and the results have been surprising.

South East Water’s partnership with the University of Melbourne started around seven years ago, with the goal of understanding how customers use water and how water utilities can offer an enhanced experience.

Alana Jones, Customer Research and Development Project Manager at South East Water, said the broader research goal was to look at how the utility could use its digital metering information to deliver real-time water usage data back to its customers in a meaningful way via different technologies.

Some of these included an app that showed appliance-based usage, an in-home shower meter, and another app that offered incentives – all technologies that gave customers a range of ways to save water.

“Our customers tell us that they want to understand their water usage and how they can make changes in their everyday lives to not only save on their bills, but also to conserve water, as there is a heightened awareness around the scarcity of water and how precious it is as a natural resource,” Ms Jones said.

Andrew Forster-Knight, South East Water’s General Manager Digital Utility, agrees.

“If we know our customers are looking to us for help with household water efficiency, we can assess the best ways to help them without being invasive. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What are those potentially simple things that we can do that are going to be effective and drive the result that our customers are looking for around reduced water consumption?,” Mr Forster-Knight said.

Each trial took around 12 months to set up and involved detailed product development and a minimum three month trial implementation.

As the trials continued, each one built upon the previous results and grew larger in terms of customer participation. As the trials were conducted with South East Water digital meter customers, the trials also developed alongside the utility’s rollout plan.

Trial 1 – MySew

The first trial conducted as part of this research in 2016/2017 looked at providing around 200 customers with water usage information – specifically water usage at the appliance level – via a newly created mySEW phone app. The idea was that showing customers where they were using the most water around the house, whether that was their washing machine or shower, could encourage them to then reduce consumption on these higher use appliances.

Surprisingly, the results revealed no dramatic change in water usage behaviour, besides some reductions between 11am – 12pm day-to-day. Ms Jones said the South East Water team was shocked that this trial didn’t find any water efficiency impact.

“We were shocked because we’d always been told by customers, ‘If you give me my usage by appliance, then I can really target my behaviour’, which was a common customer insight at the time,” Ms Jones said. “We ended up debunking that, but the alternate finding was that the app was incredibly helpful at driving awareness of usage, and this did help customers digest what’s happening.

Previously, if you didn’t know what your usage was, you could be quite shocked at a bill which might then have driven an adverse reaction into our contact centre. This app could possibly stop that customer reaction, so while it didn’t encourage reduction, it did give awareness.

“If something doesn’t pan out as we anticipate, that’s not a bad thing, it’s something for us to learn from as an organisation.”

Trial 2 – Amphiro

The second trial was undertaken in 2017 and saw the Amphiro B1 shower meter implemented across 700 households, in seven different experimental conditions. This was a pivot away from trial one, as instead of a mobile app, this involved a device that customers attach to their shower.

The device displayed data such as the temperature of the water, the litres of water the customer has used, as well as the energy used; so it was a combined water and energy data offering. This trial found a 13.3 per cent reduction in customer shower water usage, driven by a 42 second reduction in shower times. Ms Jones said customers responded best to intermittent feedback, reflecting the development of changing habits.

“The biggest finding was that habits can be created over time. We had 700 customers in this trial and each group of 100 customers got a different version of the visual device. Researchers were really interested, and hence we were, about how habits form. Do they form if people are shown the information every single day, or every week, or intermittent days, intermittent weeks etc.?

“The surprising finding was that it wasn’t every day. The group that did the best was not given information every single day; they were one of the groups that was just given an intermittent packet of information,” Ms Jones said.

Trial 3 – Water Savers

South East Water’s most recent trial took place in 2022 and tested the effectiveness of the Water Saver smartphone app, which encouraged households to save water as a response to combinations of goals, feedback, and incentives. Ms Jones said the utility learnt a lot from the app in Trial One that they leveraged into this one, especially as there were several years between the two trials.

“This was a different type of app as it was about displaying information to customers, helping them set a goal or achieve a target, and then with that target, customers were qualified for a financial incentive,” Ms Jones said.

“So that was a sort of iteration from project one. The technology landscape had also changed so quickly which meant that we had lots of bells and whistles in this trial that weren’t in project one.” The Water Savers app trial was conducted with more than 850 customers, across three different conditions and found that the first six weeks of the trial resulted in a 14 per cent water usage reduction amongst customers who had downloaded the app and had received the feedback and earned rewards, with usage effects plateauing in the final six weeks.

The critical role of real-time digital metering data

Through these and other trials South East Water has conducted, the utility has been able to highlight the economic value of real-time digital meter data in achieving large-scale water conservation. Ms Jones said real-time data from digital meters was the key enabler of these programs and without these capabilities, these initiatives would look very different.

“It’s really the cornerstone of what we can offer and that’s because we can help customers more closely to the time of actual usage, and that’s been the biggest gap. Customers go bill-to-bill in a three month period without much knowledge of what they’re using, and so we can use that data in a variety of ways to offer different things depending on customer preferences.”

Ms Jones said South East Water can also use this information to send notifications if there’s a leak or really high unexpected usage, and that can be at the point of consumption or close to, and that’s something they’ve never been able to offer before, but has been so in demand.

“When customers get a really high bill and it’s because a leak under their property has gone unnoticed, that’s a really stressful moment, so that’s a real key feature for us,” Ms Jones said.

It all comes back to customer experience

With the Water Savers App trial completed in 2022, the research partnership between South East Water and the University of Melbourne is now applying for additional funding for the next phase and scale of research trials. Ms Jones said there is currently a lot of strategy work happening within the utility’s digital teams, and there’s now the opportunity to take this work even further.

“Eventually, we want to go from these smaller pilots into developing things at scale. So if we’ve got 200 customers in a trial with an app, the next step is to think about how we get it across to our whole customer base in a sustainable, agile and flexible way, and that’s a long journey between those two extremes.

“I would say we’re 30 to 40 per cent through that journey because that’s going to run alongside the digital metering rollout, with both happening in sync,” Ms Jones said. Besides the mySEW, Amphiro and Water Savers App trials, South East Water has also conducted other trials with its customers based on digital meter data over the years, using the learnings from these.

Some of these included Continuous Flow Trial in 2020 – when a possible leak was detected, the customer was sent a notification to raise awareness of the usage, with these notifications delivering a 61.8 per cent reduction in billed water compared to them only becoming aware through the traditional quarterly billing cycle.

A continuous flow event is triggered when the digital meter has detected continuous usage of 120L per day or greater for a period of at least 24 hours. Also, the Spike in Usage Trial in 2021/2022 assessed the effectiveness of an early notification when a spike in usage was detected among 400 customers (i.e. an increase of 15-20 per cent beyond seasonal variation).

This reduced average daily water usage by 22.4 per cent for tenants. Ms Jones said that what’s most interesting about all of these programs around the implementation of digital metering data, is how the utility can use this to enhance customer experience in a number of different ways.

“Collecting data is great, but it’s using it to improve customer experience that is more important. This could be through getting a notification if there’s high usage at that property that might be unexpected, which could indicate a leak on the property, or it could be around helping people to understand what their bill is telling them and how they can actually make changes around that should they want to,” Ms Jones said. “We want to empower our customers to have a strong relationship with water and build their understanding around that as well.”

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