Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Learning to save water, drop by drop

The Dropcountr app shows household water usage in real time and allows Folsom residents to compare it to past consumption as well as that of their neighbors.
The Dropcountr app shows household water usage in real time and allows Folsom residents to compare it to past consumption as well as that of their neighbors. Dropcountr

Think of this technology as positive reinforcement, one drop at a time.

As they try to reduce water consumption by 32 percent during California’s epic drought, Folsom residents have a cutting-edge tool to answer a common question: “How much water did we use today?”

Teenager stays in the shower forever? Toilet flapper keeps popping up? Leaky sprinkler head creates a constant puddle? Now, residents can see exactly how wasteful those long showers and little leaks can be. That also goes for running the sprinklers or the washing machine.

Thanks to a handy mobile app called Dropcountr, they can see in real time their household consumption.

“We get calls from new (Dropcountr) users,” said Don Smith, the city of Folsom’s water conservation coordinator. “They’ll say, ‘Something’s wrong with this thing. No way can I be using 500 gallons in the middle of the night.’ I ask them, ‘When did your sprinklers come on?’

“Then, the light goes on,” Smith added. “That’s an eye-opening event. They had no idea how much water they were really using and when.”

Until they see it for themselves.

“It’s working very well, especially with the drought,” Smith added. “People are more and more interested in it.”

Folsom tied Dropcountr use to its other conservation programs such as rebates for cash-for-grass lawn removal and irrigation upgrades.

“To do either, you need to sign up for Dropcountr, too,” Smith said. “We have about 2,300 customers on it right now.”

That leaves plenty of room for additional sign-ups; Folsom has more than 18,000 residential water customers. (Folsom residents interested in the service should contact their water provider.)

“We’ve only had one customer who asked to be dropped after they signed up,” Smith said. “She thought the app was too distracting and it could cause traffic accidents because people would be too obsessed with checking their water usage.”

Based in Redwood City, Dropcountr partnered with Folsom last year to develop a pilot program for residents to monitor water usage in real time. Free to users, the app is accessible online and via mobile devices. It’s also in use in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. But before consumers can start using the app, they need their water provider to sign up for the program. So far, Folsom is the only local city offering Dropcountr.

During Dropcountr’s local trial, this gadget seems to be working – without disrupting traffic. According to Dropcountr’s statistics, Folsom users have cut their average monthly water use by nearly 10 percent compared to what they consumed before using the app.

“This is really exciting because it underlines what we’ve believed all along – that people are more responsive and conscious of their water use when they’re informed,” said Dropcountr’s Kellock Irvin.

Dropcountr shows users their water consumption in terms they understand – gallons, not acre-feet. It also illustrates where they are in terms of pricing tiers; the more water used, the higher the tier and the cost per gallon.

Bringing out people’s competitive nature, Dropcountr pinpoints residents’ use in comparison to their neighbors as well as the community overall. App users can chart their use by day, week, month or year. Users can set personal goals for their households, so they can target their own conservation efforts.

“It gives people a lot of good information about their water use right away,” Smith said. “You don’t have to wait for your bill to see how much water you used. You can see trends. If there is a problem like a leak, you can see it long before you’d be paying for it with an inflated water bill.”

Smith has received a lot of positive feedback from Folsom residents. He cited the case of “Mike the Poolman.”

Mike Stinson credited Dropcountr for helping him find a major leak in his own pool. Stinson, who runs a pool service business, now recommends the app to his customers.

“My swimming pool recently had a leak, and I didn’t realize it until I saw that I was using way more water than my neighbors,” said Stinson. “I turned off my (pool’s) auto-fill and soon realized I had an issue. Fortunately, it was an easy repair in my skimmer neck. Try (Dropcountr) out. I’m glad I did.”

Smith expects other water providers to check out Dropcountr, too.

“Most people, the only information they have about their water usage is on their bill,” he said. “That information is already 30 days old – or older – when they see it. If they get a new efficient toilet or take out the lawn, they want to know if it had an impact on their water usage – and they want to know right away. Dropcountr gives them very positive reinforcement.

“It’s definitely a great educational tool,” Smith said. “If you don’t know how much water you’re using, it’s hard to cut back.”