A Little Nudging Goes a Long Way When It Comes to Water Efficiency

A Little Nudging Goes a Long Way When It Comes to Water Efficiency

Water efficiency is just as much about improved technologies as it is changing consumers' behavior. One study shows how a little consumer nudge goes a long way--even on a city-wide scale.

Some of the technological advances in recent years regarding water efficiency have been quite amazing. For instance, scientists have re-engineered seeds, such as those used to grow fruits and vegetables, to use far less water than traditional seeds and still produce vital, healthy crops.

Furthermore, virtually all the water using devices found in homes and commercial buildings today (from HVAC systems, dishwashers, to waterless urinals) use far less water or no water at all, when compared to comparable appliances manufactured twenty plus years ago.

Here’s what apparently happened: The need to reduce water consumption developed, and scientists and engineers stepped in to fill it.

However, when it comes to water, just having advanced technologies is not enough. In fact, it can work against us. Something called the “rebound effect” has been causing a bit of havoc for environmentalists. This is when, for instance, water-efficient showerheads have been installed in a gym shower. But because users know the showerheads use far less water than traditional showerheads, they take longer showers. This negates all the potential water-saving benefits.

So, this tells us that when it comes to water efficiency, our focus must be two-fold:

  • Installing new technologies that help us accomplish this.
  • Changing behaviors, to help ensure it happens.

Over the years, we have found there are many ways to change people’s behaviors, specifically with the use of messaging. Right now, we are continuously messaged about the need to wear masks in public and to wash our hands for 20 seconds. These messages, for the most part, are working very effectively.

Different messaging tools are also being used to nudge people into using less water. One that has garnered considerable attention occurred in a small town in Costa Rica.

Belen, Costa Rica, has just over 20,000 people and is a working-class community. It has had few concerns about water for decades, but climate change has reduced water sources. Further, antiquated water infrastructure, which would be very costly to replace, has resulted in large amounts of water lost to leakage throughout the system.

Government leaders believed the best way to get the citizens of this town to reduce water consumption was by changing behaviors. But first, they had to overcome some obstacles. For instance, most of the townspeople knew everyone had to reduce water consumption, but most believed they were already doing their part; it was others in the community that were wasting water.

Another problem encountered is that people in this small town, just like many of us, had no idea how much water they were using each month. They knew about how much their water bill was, but they had no idea how this amount translated into gallons.

Furthermore, when they tried to read their water bills and better understand them, most found them confusing. And one more thing. As we mentioned, many people thought they were already using water wisely and that it was others that were wasting water. But based on what evidence? There was no program in place that allowed users to compare their water consumption with their neighbors or the town at large.

So, what steps did government administrators take to address these issues and change water using behaviors?

As to the water bills, steps were taken so that the bills were clearer and easier to understand. This was the foundation for the future messaging techniques that were implemented, such as the following:

  • Some of the water bills mailed to people in Belen had red stickers on them. This bright read message also included a “frowning face.” When these consumers opened their bills, they realized they were being reprimanded—gently—for using more water than their neighbors.
  • Other water bills had a green sticker on them and this time, a “smiling face.” As you can guess, this was a message of congratulations.
  • A third group, the control group, received traditional water bills with no red or green messaging stickers.
  • Finally, everyone, except the control group, received a post card with their bill to mail back to the water department. The postcard asked each resident to set goals, indicating how they planned to reduce water consumption over the next thirty days. They were also offered suggestions on how to accomplish this.
The results of this eight-month program were the following:
  • The control group reduced water consumption just a bit. Most likely this was because of general messaging in the community to scale back on water use.
  • Those consumers receiving the red sticker bills, reduced consumption by 1.5 percent in the study.
  • Those consumers that took the next step, filled out the postcards and mailed them back to the water utility, reduced water consumption by almost two percent.

One of the researchers commented:

“We found that giving individuals feedback [referring to messaging] on their water reducing outcomes, relative to that of their peers, has measurable effects on water consumption. We also found that the Plan-Making intervention [referring to the post cards] prompts people to set their own goals for water conservation… helping them achieve those goals.”

While the study did not indicate how much water the entire town of Belen was using, we can assume that if water consumption was going down 1.5 to two percent over a period of months, that would have a significant and positive impact. Furthermore, behavioral changes often are the beginnings of a water conserving journey. Now that the townspeople are continually looking for ways to cut back; reducing water consumption is now part of their culture.