Foundation Communities: Water Consumption Monitoring System
Foundation Communities, an Austin, Texas-based affordable housing nonprofit, was struggling with excessive water bills and lack of resident understanding regarding the costs and impacts of their water usage. In an effort to conserve water and reduce costs for both the company and the residents, FC invested in a three-year AmeriCorps VISTA project through NeighborWorks America to develop a water consumption monitoring system and resident education program. The team accessed and tracked FC’s water usage data and used the data to educate staff and residents on water conservation strategies. FC created tools and resources for residents and staff including ‘Water Saving Tips’, ‘Water Leak Detection Instructions’, and an ‘Operations and Maintenance Plan’. Combined, the monitoring system and resident education program have allowed FC to decrease water consumption and costs by identifying unit equipment leaks early and educating high users in water conservation techniques.
Foundation Communities controls over 89% of the factors affecting indoor energy and water use and invests in capital improvements that benefit the long-term viability of their properties’ and residents’ financial stability. FC’s Sustainability Team has been managing energy and water data by actively benchmarking utility consumption for the last ten years. This includes closely monitoring monthly consumption increases for residents and owner paid accounts. With building ages spanning across 50 years FC had years of water data readily available.
At the start of the three-year project in 2017, the team asked a core question: “How can we use data to help residents reduce utility costs?” One of FC’s most challenging sets of data was from water submetering systems. FC had 874 units across seven properties with water submetering systems, and only two of the systems were used to bill residents. Water bills for the other five systems were paid for by the company. FC was spending over $1.5 million on water each year. The team recognized they had an opportunity to use their data to educate residents and reduce water consumption and costs. They strategized that an increase in education amongst residents at each property and an open dialogue of how water consumption habits affect monthly bills could lead to substantial savings per unit. Additionally, more residents could experience utility savings, appliance maintenance, and water conservation education.
To address the challenge, they created a three-year NeighborWorks AmeriCorps VISTA program to analyze un-used utility data. AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a national service program dedicated to ending poverty by building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public agencies. One of the NeighborWorks VISTA Program’s primary areas of focus is financial literacy, a good fit for a submetering project.
AmeriCorps VISTA members worked with Foundation Communities to create “Water Monitoring Workbooks” for each property to collect and analyze data, enable consistency in data tracking, and extract specific information from large datasets. The workbooks tracked monthly water consumption data for units including:
- Gallons of water consumed per bedroom per day
- Average monthly water consumption
- Minimum monthly water consumption
- Best performing units (top 25 percentile water consumption), median, poor performing units (bottom 75 percentile)
Each month, they identified five units across the property for the following categories:
- Highest users (using the most gallons per day)
- Most efficient users (the units that are closely matching the water standard for the property)
- Units believed to be vacant (units with the closest usage to 0 gallons per day)
The team recorded the top five highest users and sent an email at the beginning of each month to alert property staff of the units that needed to be inspected for leaks and the corresponding residents that should receive water conservation education. FC generated a work order and maintenance staff inspected each of the five units and submeters. Following their visits to resident units, maintenance staff sent a follow-up email to document that residents had received education on water-saving techniques.
At the beginning of implementing the water consumption monitoring system, consumption of 50 gallons/bedroom/day was considered the target water usage standard for each property. However, this did not account for the varied unit occupancy of each property. Foundation Communities calculated a ‘Water Standard Range’ to more accurately reflect each property’s water consumption by encompassing property-specific features, U.S. EPA water use guidelines, and the number of residents in each unit.
FC also encountered equipment malfunctions. When equipment malfunctions occurred and metering systems went offline, data did not correctly transmit to the reporting system. This meant the unit consumption data was inaccurate. Additionally, some of FC’s submeter companies had their own alert systems. Managing malfunctions with these alert systems was cumbersome and time-consuming.
Finally, FC experienced a common multifamily barrier: the split incentive. Residents at two of FC’s sub-metered properties had a financial incentive to conserve water because they paid their own water bills. However, water bills at FC’s five other properties were paid for by the organization, not the residents. It is more difficult to encourage residents to conserve resources when they do not pay the costs and therefore see no obvious direct benefit to them.
Education is mission-critical in creating a successful water submetering system to ensure that property staff’s visits with residents do not feel like just another work order. Each month, the five highest water users received water conservation education from maintenance staff and were provided with a "Water Savings Tips" infographic. The maintenance staff are responsible for explaining the pamphlet in depth by methodically going through each water feature within the apartment and then, discussing the actions to mitigate high water usage in those areas. Foundation Communities believed that if residents knew how their indoor activities contributed to the amount of water they were wasting, they would choose to curb their water usage to save money.
FC created "Water Leak Detection Instructions" and an "Operations and Maintenance Plan" for maintenance workers to check units for water leaks. The "Water Leak Detection Instructions" helps maintenance workers accurately inspect the submeter in each unit to see if it is calibrated correctly. In addition, it provides a systematic process of inspecting each water feature. The “Operations and Maintenance Plan” locates each item of the submeter system across the property and provides instructions on how to troubleshoot errors and complete preventative maintenance.
In the long term, water savings by unit will be the ultimate measure of success for Foundation Communities’ water submeter intervention program. Each unit’s water savings target is determined according to property-specific features, U.S. EPA water use guidelines, and the number of residents in each unit. Additionally, the team will track overall maintenance savings on the submeter systems and the occurrence of water conservation education trainings with residents.
Foundation Communities is analyzing results to measure the decrease in water consumption. In the first six months, residents did not receive any education intervention and maintenance did not inspect units for leaks. Interventions occurred in months seven through 12. Three of the properties that received interventions showed a reduction in consumption. Two variables were analyzed to determine the success of interventions:
- # of units removed from the high user category, and
- # number of high users that saw a decline in water consumption.
Post intervention, more units cycled off the high user list. Several of the units that remained on the high user list saw a decrease in their daily consumption.
In an effort to conserve water and reduce costs for both the company and the residents, Foundation Communities invested in a three-year AmeriCorps VISTA project through NeighborWorks America to develop a water consumption monitoring system and resident education program.
Lack of data monitoring system for managing and understanding sub-metered water data
Invested in a three-year AmeriCorps Vista project through NeighborWorks America to develop a water consumption monitoring system and resident education program.
The new system has decreased water consumption and costs by monitoring water consumption across seven sub-metered properties, educating high users in water conservation techniques, and identifying unit equipment leaks early.