Proposal for personal water targets as companies test smart home technology

The government has floated the idea of personal water targets while utility companies start water-saving smart technology trials.

The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), now under new management with Andrea Leadsom as Secretary of State, has published the proposal for each person in the UK to keep their water consumption within an agreed “budget”.

This comes as Anglian, Northumbrian, and South East Water work with smart meter developer Hive on pilots for a new technology that monitors water lost through common plumbing problems like dripping taps and leaking toilets.

The water target is a key part of the consultation document on ways to reduce personal water use with the government seeking views on better management of the increasingly precious resource at individual, local and business levels.

Severe shortages

The official move comes after the Environment Agency warned of severe shortages within 25 years and research by the National Infrastructure Commission that indicates England reaching its “Day Zero” for water in 2050.

Day Zero is when utility companies would be forced to turn off residents’ taps due to a lack of water supply. Water stress will only increase as the population grows and businesses demand more supplies.

Government statistics show that the average person in the UK uses 141 litres of water each day, although this does not take into account the “water footprint” of the products and services they consume.

There have already been a wide range of recommendations on the optimum target for Per Capita Consumption (PCC), a widely accepted measure.

Optimum target

The National Infrastructure Commission proposes a target of 118 litres per person per day while the Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended a PCC of 110 litres per person per day for all new buildings.

UK NGO Waterwise is pushing for a PCC of 100 litres per person or less within 25 years while regulator Ofwat proposed it was possible to achieve average daily consumption of between 50 and 70 litres per person in 50 years.

DEFRA is asking individuals, academics and businesses for ideas on how to develop a “water-saving culture” where water utility companies actively support domestic and business customers to use less.

It says:

“Climate change, population increases, environmental requirements and a growing demand for water will mean that, in the future, there will be substantial pressure on surface and groundwater supplies, less water available per person and a significant likelihood of more frequent, severe droughts.”

Water saving

Along with personal water targets, the consultation will look at labelling for water-using products, how information on water saving is communicated to consumers and which behaviour-change campaign methods are most effective.

Behaviour change could make a significant difference. For example, running the tap while brushing teeth can waste up to 25 litres a minute while toilet flushing accounts for 31% of the average household daily water use. Cutting out non-essential toilet flushing could easily halve that figure.

The consultation will also investigate how better building standards can improve water efficiency, and how metering could be used to manage water systems.

Water usage varies according to whether customers have a water meter – average 129 litres per person per day – or not (average PCC of 162 litres per person per day), according to government figures.

Two extremes

Individual consumption also varies widely by region, with the two extremes being non-metered customers in the south-west region (198 litres per person per day) and metered customers in the Yorkshire region using around 55% of that amount (108 litres per person per day).

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said:

“Our tap water comes direct from the ground, and our lakes and rivers where it supports wildlife. It is only by reducing the amount of water we all use that we can reduce pressure on the environment and avoid future water shortages. I’d encourage everyone to take part in the consultation and think about ways you can use less water.

Smart water sensors

Reducing waste is central to the smart technology being trialled, with Hive Leak Sensors being installed in thousands of homes. These will automatically detect unusual flow levels through the mains pipe, alerting homeowners via an app notification for swift action.

The sensors detect anomalies based on the temperature of the water pipes and can monitor the smallest of water flows, even a drip or two over a few seconds.

John Gutch, Head of Product at Hive Leak Sensor said:

“Without technology it is extremely difficult for us to find a leak or recognise where water is being lost or wasted in our homes. But based on the data we have already seen from our sensors, we predict that if just 30 per cent of all homes in the UK used technology to monitor their own waterflow, it would reduce the number of reported leaks from 2.3 million to 540,000 over a year. This is pretty astonishing and could help the nation seriously reduce its water wastage.”

The Environment Agency says that a third of the water consumed daily by an average family is lost through leaks rather than conscious usage and three millions litres of water leak from pipes every day in England – more than one fifth of total supply. A leaking toilet alone can waste as much as 400 litres of water a day.

The consultation document says:

“This has a huge impact on the resilience of water supplies. Companies have committed to reducing leakage by an average of 16% by 2025 and halving it by 2050, reducing leakage to 10% of the water entering the distribution system.”

DEFRA says it wants to qualify what “an achievable but ambitious personal consumption target could be”.

Business solutions

For businesses, there have already been significant moves with 10 water companies jointly launching a new innovation fund aimed at supporting green solutions to climate change, population growth and leaks in April.

Meanwhile, Blueprint for Water, part of the Wildlife and Countryside Link (the biggest environment coalition in England) publishes yearly sustainable water “scorecards” ranking water utilities on initiatives to conserve nature and promote social sustainability.

Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said:

“We take our supply of clean water for granted and to keep doing that, given the growing population and impact of climate change, we need to challenge ourselves more on how much water we actually need to use. While water companies must lead the way in reducing leakage, using water efficiently will help ensure we all have enough water for our homes, to produce food, products and services, and to protect our valuable natural environment for the next generation.”

The consultation will run until Friday October 11. Information can be found and responses can be submitted here. DEFRA water consultation online survey.

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