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Can peer pressure promote water efficiency?

Monday, March 3, 2014

What lessons can facility managers glean from California’s recent behavioural water efficiency program?

On Jan. 14, 2014, the California Water Foundation and the East Bay Municipal Water District, which serves communities east of San Francisco, announced the results of a pilot project referred to as the behavioural water efficiency program.

The gist of the program was rather simple: using software that compare “apples to apples” as best as possible, residential customers were given the opportunity to anonymously compare their water consumption with neighbours who live in similar houses with about the same number of residents.

The goal of the program, which some dubbed the “shame program,” was to encourage water efficiency. Unlike water conservation, water efficiency refers to making long-term changes in water use, rather than responding to a short-term issue and then returning to previous behaviour when the crisis has passed.

Advocates are now wondering if such a program could also work for commercial facilities. Could a reported comparison of two office buildings, for instance, encourage facility managers to find new ways to reduce long-term water consumption?

Previous evidence to suggest the effectiveness of behavioural efficiency programs was brought forward in 2008. The National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed data from two field experiments conducted on approximately 75,000 household customers in the United States. A randomly selected number of similar households received regular reports regarding their energy consumption; the reports also compared each household’s energy use with that of their neighbours.

These reports not only included comparison charts, but also noted “efficient neighbours,” or those making significant cuts in energy use. Along with these reports came messages designed to motivate action and encourage consumers to reduce their energy consumption.

The experiment took place over a 12-month period and yielded the following results:

  • Providing comparison reports was correlated with significant reductions in home energy use;
  • The effects of the program continued to be strong up to 12 months after the program ended;
  • Significant reductions in energy consumption were achieved immediately, suggesting the results were caused by what researchers called “increased mindfulness.”

Expanding on this last observation, the researchers added that these energy reductions “did not wane over time and may indicate that energy reductions are caused by more durable changes.” In other words, the households in the experiment were not reducing energy use temporarily. Rather, they were making changes that were more long term.

A “shame-based” program such as the one described above may also work for commercial locations, inspiring the managers of such facilities to find ways to use water more efficiently. The study indicated that knowing how one building compares to others in the community could influence behaviours and decisions.

Klaus Reichardt is a frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, and founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc. The company produces waterless urinals and other restroom products. He can be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.

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