Wireless electronics promise a better way to
bill for water use and promote conservation.

It's all too easy to consider water as a freebie. Most of us wouldn't think of leaving a light on once we've left a room since an electricity bill arrives in the mail every month.

But we're pretty carefree about running hot water during a morning shave or cold when it comes to brushing our teeth. Apartments dwellers, in particular, have little incentive to conserve water since it's typically lumped into one monthly rent check.

One California company recently outlined its plan to change that by essentially billing apartment dwellers for water use much in the same way they're currently billed for electricity.

Wellspring International Inc., San Diego, Calif., hopes to position itself as the nation's first water subutility by installing a wireless measuring device to the hot and cold water feed of individual faucets, toilets, showerheads and tub spouts.

"You'll see big changes in this industry in the next couple of years," says Brian Brittsan, the company's president. "Free water will be a thing of the past, conservation will be the norm and unfair water allocation systems will be unacceptable in light of alternatives."

Brittsan estimates the water submetering business in the United States to be $10 billion. He adds that since residents will pay for what they used to consider "free," they'll be much more likely to conserve water as a result.

Wellspring's subutility will function like other utilities; it will provide the metering system, retain ownership, read meters automatically, post data on its Web site for residents, send utility bills, collect payments, reimburse owners, and answer resident questions.

What's more, if there is a plumbing problem, the wireless sensor reports it with meter data three times a day to facilitate quick repair.

"If the meter on a toilet detects a leak," Brittsan explains, "it sends us a diagnostic message, and we'll alert building management to fix it - often before the resident calls for help."

Wellspring offers the entire system with no investment from property owners. The company plans to make a profit by charging residents a metering service fee.

While very much still in its infancy, the company has also lined up a group of other players to help launch the business. Most notably for our industry, Roto-Rooter will be in charge of installing and maintaining the company's AquraT metering system.

That system consists of the following:

  • A flow sensor with an IAPMO-listed sensing assembly, rated at 8 gpm with maximum 15 psi loss. The sensor's design life is equivalent to 2 gpm for 55 minutes daily over 20 years when mounted at point- of-use, or 2.4 million gallons for branch sensors.

  • A battery-operated transmitter that's permanently attached to the flow sensor. Inside, a microprocessor records water consumption and energy use. Data is encoded and transmitted by radio using an encrypted protocol three times daily. A low battery indication is transmitted at least three months in advance of failure.
The meters use one-way radios that send signals with water consumption data out to local receivers and a community base station. The base station then feeds data to a national collection center via high-speed modem. Once the data center gets the meter readings, the information is posted on the Internet, and residents, with their password, can view consumption data on the Wellspring's Web site.

The data is transferred monthly to billing system from which bills are mailed. Inquires are handled by a bilingual consumer call center accessed via the Internet or a toll-free number 24 hours a day, seven days a week.