Site Survey Program Introduction

Site surveys or customer audits are an important tool for determining water use and conservation potential at a specific location.  There are many variations of this technique, but all involve trained professionals at the water customers’ site, performing a thorough survey of indoor and outdoor water use.  The survey data is used to analyze potential water efficiency measures, and the customer receives a written report of; water use, recommended measures, and estimated costs and savings.  The strategy is based on the premise that customers want to be water efficient, they just are not sure exactly what to do.

There is an abundance of information directed to customers on ways they should save water.  This has led to information overload, and sometimes the information is conflicting and confusing.  The problem with “100 ways to save water” campaigns is the customer is not sure which measures are important, and which measures apply to their situation.  The on-site survey customizes the recommendations to each individual customer and allows person-to-person discussion of each recommendation.  This personal attention is very important and is sometimes lost as water utilities attempt to lower program costs by: streamlining surveys, reducing surveyor time at the site, and creating generic checklists.   The survey should be viewed as an opportunity to provide expert advice and consultation to the customer, not just an information delivery system.

Residential Surveys

Indoor-outdoor surveys are most often marketed to residential customers, though large landscape and commercial customers also benefit from similar services.   The local climate, water use patterns and housing demographics are important factors when implementing a program.   There are several aspects of the program that should be considered to design an effective strategy, Including:

  • Target Customers – Certain customers are likely to garner more water savings than others.  It is most beneficial to serve customers that are likely wasting the most water, and those who are most likely to follow the recommendations of the survey report.  Experience has shown the very highest water users (top 5%) often do not participate in on-site survey programs.   Conversely, the lowest water users (bottom 25%) are usually very efficient water users and the survey results in little water savings.   The best candidates to target are those that are likely wasting water and are highly motivated to act on the survey recommendations.   It is best to select the target market by culling customer records based on annual and/or seasonal consumption history.  Some water utilities have also found merit in comparing consumption records within certain neighborhoods, subdivisions and zones.  Whatever target marketing method is used, the goal is to garner the maximum water savings from program costs.
  • Marketing Methods – Experience suggests the very best marketing method is direct mail to the targeted customers.  Mass media (radio, TV and newspaper ads) reap low participation compared to cost, and garners participation from non-targeted customers.  Direct mail also allows the water utility to regulate participation and activity through staged mailings.
  • Surveyors – Proper and thorough training is necessary for the surveyors.  The training should include all aspects of water conservation plus general knowledge of utility operations.  It is important to view the survey as one of the very few opportunities for the customer to converse with a utility representative.
  • Survey – Every aspect of indoor and outdoor water use is surveyed.  The water use rating of each plumbing fixture (toilet, shower, faucet, etc.) is measured or estimated.    All water appliance (dishwashers, clothes washers, softeners, etc.) are inspected to determine water use.  Toilets are checked for leaks use dye tablets.  The surveyor searches for water leaks and measures usage.   All of the data is recorded along with household information to prepare the survey report.
  • Device Distribution and Installations - The surveyor distributes or installs low-cost water saving devices, such as: showerheads, faucet aerators, toilet displacement devices, shower timers, hose bib timers, leak detection dye tablets, etc.
  • Irrigation Scheduling –The surveyor performs a precipitation test to determine the water application rate, then calculates the duration of operation (minutes/week) needed to maintain a healthy lawn.  Reporting the minutes per week of watering is the most useful irrigation information imparted to the customer.  In regions where landscape is regularly watered, over irrigation is the most common and significant problem of residential water waste.   There is no meaningful method to instruct customers on proper irrigation levels without testing their irrigation system.  The water application rate of systems varies from 0.25”/hr. to 3.5”/hr (.64 cm/hr to 8.89 cm/hr).  
  • Survey Report – A written report is completed by the surveyor, and a copy left with the customer.  The surveyor reviews the report with the customer before leaving the home.  The customer report should not only inform; it should also motivate the customer to follow the water efficiency recommendations.  Water savings projections are estimated for each recommendation based on the unique factors (number of occupants, type of fixtures and appliances, size of landscape, leaks discovered, etc.) of the household.

Variations of residential surveys abound.  Several agencies have used to program to respond to high bill inquiries, and some have targeted high water users when implementing new tiered rate billing systems with very successful results.  In efforts to reduce program costs, some utilities have designed homeowner self-survey programs, but water saving results often suffer.  There are several web-based self-survey programs also available.  The hurdle for self-survey variants is few customers are able to take the proper measurements needed to perform an effective survey.  When designing a survey program, carefully consider the benefits and costs of different designs.

Commercial Surveys

Water surveys for commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) customers are similar to residential surveys, except for the complexity of the survey and analysis.  Depending on the facility surveyed, the surveyor requires a greater level of expertise and knowledge in commercial water use.   There are very few “rules-of-thumb” applicable throughout the CII sector.  The water savings potential is large, but identifying and achieving the savings requires skill, technical expertise and detailed survey techniques. 

The water utility often finds it beneficial to first assess the profile of their overall CII customer base: who are the highest water users?; what are the predominate types of businesses?, what type of rates apply?, etc.   This information is usually available through the customer billing system. This task is much easier when the utility billing records include SIC or NCIS codes.   Knowing the customer base assists in determining the preferred target market and the skill level needed to perform the surveys.

Large Landscape Surveys

These surveys focus on large landscapes, such as parks, golf courses, commercial facilities, industrial complexes, schools and universities, athletic fields, and the common landscape areas of housing complexes (condos and apartments).  The survey techniques are focused on the irrigation system and the vegetation water requirements.  Where the climate requires extensive landscape irrigation, large landscape surveys can greatly assist the customer in reducing water use, especially during summer peak usage periods. 

A simple precipitation test and irrigation schedule is not enough to garner the full potential water savings at these sites.  Water waste is often caused by a poorly designed and maintained irrigation system.  Poor water distribution of the system is usually the main problem.  While some turf areas are grossly over-watered, other areas are suffering from water deficits.  In general, the watering schedule is often set to the level needed to maintain the areas receiving the least amount of water; resulting in other areas flooded with water.   Reducing the irrigation schedule to an average precipitation rate will result in some vegetation dying.

The surveyor for large landscape surveys must be highly trained and skilled.  The survey must identify problems with the design and the hardware of the irrigation system.  The survey report should offer instructions on necessary design changes and hardware repair needed to irrigate efficiently.  Sadly, these recommendations sometimes cost more than the site customer is prepared to pay.   The price of the water to the customer greatly influences their decision to improve the irrigation system.   Water utilities implementing these programs have experienced wide ranges of success in saving water.  The most successful programs occur when the customer experiences high water rates when exceeding the water use budget – set according to the landscaper water requirements.