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Why water efficiency is important: a Q&A with Joe Payne

Our Foundation research At Home with Water drew on data from the Water Energy Calculator and was the biggest ever review of domestic water use in Britain. It showed there is room for vast improvements on the home front.

Our resident water expert Joe Payne says parts of the UK are now severely water stressed but there is an opportunity to avoid crises in water supply by helping households use water more efficiently.


At Home with Water

What were the most important findings of the At Home with Water research?

Joe Payne: Apart from the individual findings, I think what was most important was the insight into the wide range of ways in which people are using water in their homes. It made people quite surprised when the figures were laid out, and has definitely led to a greater sense of the opportunity for simple behaviours to save water and energy. Parts of the UK are now severely water stressed, so there is an urgent need to avoid crises in water supply from relatively basic changes to the way we use water in our homes. But in order to encourage people to make changes we need to recognise the very real barriers to this, and provide the information, support and solutions to address these.


What else is Energy Saving Trust doing to encourage water efficiency?

JP: There’s a very promising project currently taking place in Scotland. Scottish Water and EST are running a large metering trial to explore the impact of water efficiency devices and behavioural advice, even where customers do not have a monetary incentive to save. No homes in Scotland currently have water meters with householders paying water rates through council tax. Scotland is a wet place, but there are still localised stresses on water supply, which may be more cost effective to manage through demand-side interventions (getting households to use less).

The trial looks at the different ways we could encourage people to use water more efficiently in their homes. First of all, there are soft measures; no kit is installed in homes and our in-home water efficiency advisors are providing feedback using the Water Energy Calculator, along with bespoke advice for householders. The second approach installs hard measures such as shower heads and water displacement devices in our toilets. This looks at physical impacts rather than behaviour.

We’re expecting the project to reveal some really robust and interesting results that should help our understanding of how to deliver water efficiency advice most effectively.


Is our understanding of the energy impact of hot water use improving?

JP: Yes, and that is in part thanks to Energy Saving Trust work, but it’s still well short of where it should be. Historically, water costs have always been relatively cheap compared to energy, so the issue of saving water hasn’t bothered people as much, and it has created something of a disconnect between the idea of water and energy as utilities. There’s are also different ways in which people feel about water in comparison with energy – many see water as more of a right and something which is always abundant in supply. Britain’s wet climate doesn’t help in that sense either...

Water sometimes has a tendency to ‘slip through the cracks’ at policy level, too. For example, water saving devices, such as efficient shower heads, can be a potentially cost effective way to make energy savings, but haven’t been included in energy supplier obligation schemes.


Favourite water saving tip?

JP: It’s not going to make me popular given how much Brits value their showers, but shaving some time off makes impressive savings with no up-front cost.


Water efficiency policy

What’s the regulatory and government view of water efficiency?

JP: There’s been a recent change in mindset from the industry regulator OFWAT, away from capital expenditure towards operational expenditure. In short, it’s now less about bigger pipes and higher reservoirs, and more about managing supply and demand more efficiently. This has encouraged water companies to place greater importance and investment into how they engage with their customers, exploring how demand-side reductions might be achieved.

At government level, DEFRA, a co-funder of the At Home with Water research, are interested in pro-environmental behaviour change and motivators for efficiency beyond the cost for people without water meters. This might be by talking to people in a way that highlights the carbon emissions impact or waste.


Do you think water metering will make a difference to how people use water?

JP: Yes, there’s emerging evidence from cases such as Southern Water’s universal meter rollout, where it looks as though the installation of meters has preceded a reduction in demand. Because water meters require people to pay for what they use, meters can help get people thinking more about their water consumption. When we spoke to people about their water-use, however, cost was not the only motivating factor that might encourage behaviour change. People think more of water as a necessity – something they don’t want to waste - and there is also interest in the environmental and ethical impact of water use.

But changing consumer attitudes is not the only way water is saved through metering. A third of water supply is lost to leakage so this is especially important in drought-threatened areas. Meters provide water companies with a more detailed picture of their supply network, enabling them to spot leaks more accurately and more quickly.

Despite the potential benefits, it’s unlikely that we’ll have universal water metering in the UK so in order to manage water demand and the energy and carbon impact of hot water use, we also need to look at other ways of engaging people.



Are new build properties more water efficient?

JP: On the whole, yes. There are range of technologies such as rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling that are better suited to new build than retrofitting, where they can be quite expensive to install. There’s generally a positive move towards more efficient fittings. On the other hand, it’s not clear cut, as there are some lifestyle trends that threaten water efficiency such as a move towards high-flow showers. There needs to be regulation without loopholes, and ultimately it’s not as simple as just installing kit, you need the behaviour to go with it.


Do businesses view water use differently from householders?

JP: There’s better efficiency among businesses, who are more likely to be metered than homes creating a clear cost incentive. On the back of this, more advanced and less homely technologies such as tap and toilet sensors are often installed. These are just not seen in domestic settings.


What should be the biggest priorities for the water industry?

JP: With an increasing number of homes being metered, including some with smarter digital meter technology, consumers must be shown the benefits of having more information on their consumption. As with smart energy data, this potential information overload needs to be interpreted for consumers in a way that empowers them to manage their consumption and appreciate the full impact of their water use, including energy.



Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.
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