Peer comparisons and reducing water consumption

April 14, 2014

How behavioral water efficiency can be applied for long-term water efficiency.

On Jan. 14, 2014, the California Water Foundation (CWF) and the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMWD), which serves communities east of San Francisco, announced the results of a pilot program referred to as the “behavioral water efficiency” program. The gist of the program was rather simple: Using software programs that can compare “apples to apples” as best as possible, residential customers were given the opportunity to compare their water consumption (anonymously) with neighbors who live in similar houses with approximately the same number of residents.

The goal of the program, which some dubbed the “shame program,” was to encourage water efficiency. Water efficiency — versus water conservation — typically refers to making long-term changes in how we use water. Conservation, on the other hand, often refers to taking short-term, immediate steps to reduce water consumption; these changes are generally reversed when a drought or dry period ends.

Long-term water efficiency strategies are a key topic in California at the moment. The year 2013 was one of the driest in California’s history, and 2014 appears to be on track to be much the same. What’s more, these conditions are occurring at a time when state utility companies are required to reduce per capita water consumption by 20 percent by the end of the decade.

As part of the results of this program, the two organizations jointly announced that “an independent study indicates that providing information that helps households compare their water use to neighborhood averages can reduce water use by five percent.” Further, based on the success of this pilot program, EBMWD “is moving forward in 2014 with plans to expand . . . the program and hopes it will be used by many of its residential customers in years to come.”

Advocates still have a few questions, however. Could such a program work for commercial facilities? Could a reported comparison of two similar schools, apartment buildings or other types of facilities encourage managers to find new ways to reduce long-term water consumption?

We may already have answers to these questions based on a study reported in 2009.

The study

According to Niki Bradley, marketing director for Waterless Co., in 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed data from two field experiments conducted on approximately 75,000 household customers of two utilities — the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and Puget Sound Energy (PSE). A randomly selected number of what were considered similar households received regular reports regarding their energy consumption. These reports also compared each household to its neighbors. Quoting from the study, these reports included:

  1. A bar chart comparing the household’s recent electricity use to a group of comparable neighbors, including “efficient neighbors” (those making significant cuts in energy use), along with messages designed to encourage reduction in energy consumption and motivate action.
  2. Another chart comparing each household’s electricity usage to its comparable neighbors and its efficient neighbors over the past 12 months.
  3. A section comparing the household’s usage in the current year by month with the same months from the previous year (otherwise known as the personal historical comparison).
  4. Tips for reducing energy consumption based on the household’s energy-use patterns, housing characteristics and demographics.

“What is interesting to note,” says Bradley, “is that the experiment took place over a 12-month period; however, the response to the program (people continuing to use water more efficiently) continued for many of the EMUD customers.”

Other results included in the report were the following:

  • Both the PSE and SMUD comparison reports caused significant reduction in home energy use.
  • The effects of the reports continued to be strong up to seven and 12 months after the household began to receive them.
  • Households with lower home values saved more [water] on average than households with higher home values.
  • Significant reductions in water consumption were achieved immediately after the first reports were sent out, suggesting the results were caused by increased mindfulness.

Expanding on this last observation, the researchers added that these water consumption 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; instead, they were making changes that were more long-term.

Mailings to managers

As part of their conclusion, the researchers suggested many ways this experiment could be used for other purposes. For instance, they suggested that schools could mail feedback to parents comparing their child with his or her peers concerning how often the child was late or absent. Dentists could send mailings out to infrequent patients indicating how often they come in for a visit compared to how often other patients visit. The researchers even suggested that private gyms mail their “lazier” patrons (as researchers called them), comparing their gym visits to other patrons who work out and use the gym more frequently.

“The possibilities for implementing similar programs based on these experiments are endless,” adds Bradley. “People’s behavior and decisions can be influenced by the knowledge of how they compare to an entire community [and] these types of programs may prove very beneficial in helping commercial facilities reduce both energy and water consumption.”

Source: “Evidence from Two Large Field Experiments that Peer Comparison Feedback Can Reduce Residential Energy Usage,” National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2009.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. He may be reached through his website at

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