In 2012, when Vivek Shukla looked into his mailbox to receive the water-bill for his apartment in Bengaluru, he had the last straw.
Month-on-month, Shukla was paying around Rs 2,100 per month for this basic necessity. He recalled that those who tended to gardens were receiving bills with rates as high as Rs 2,300.
“That was a serious amount of money back in 2012. People would complain and start fighting with each other over who used more water,” said Shukla.
The World Health Organization (WHO) prescribed water consumption is 150 litres per person per day, which translates to 600 litres per day for a family of four. An average Indian family of four, living in an apartment, consumes about 1,000 litres of water everyday.
Without a metering system in place, the bill of Shukla’s apartment complex would be a common flat rate for all residents despite the varying amounts of water consumed by each household. People were pointing fingers at each other for keeping a dog or having their in-laws as additional residents for their bloated water bills.
Another problem faced by the high-rise apartments was to find out where to install the meter as they had multiple supply lines.
This was when Shukla, who was working at Wipro at the time, decided to rope in his long-time colleague and neighbour Kasturi Rangan to solve the problem.
In August 2012, the two decided to invest between Rs 4-5 lakh, and prepared a timeline to make a prototype. Using their experience from designing remote monitoring solutions for solar power plants, the duo designed a prototype by December.
It was made using a combination of data loggers and Zigbee -- A WiFi standard touted to operation on low energy, and have high range for data transmission, qualities ideal to record consumption.
“From January 2013 to mid-2013, we worked on the prototype, tested it out on our own apartment, which translated to phenomenal savings,” he said. From a bill that used to factor in the range of Rs 2000, the two ended up paying only the bare maintenance fee of Rs 100 to Rs 150. This was the birth of WaterOn, which would go on to be the flagship product of SmarterHomes.
Emboldened by their success, Shukla and Rangan approached the rest of their society members to test their meters. He said that by next month, “The average bill settled at Rs 1,420 for these 65 houses. Where the society brought in an average of 200 tankers per month, it then reduced to 117 tankers per month. This was a drop of 40 percent, which sustained itself month after month,” he said.
Metering tends to bring down consumption down by 35 percent and this is a well-researched fact, he said.
One of the first countries to earnestly adopt metering through state policy was Chile. The country carried out the metering of household water supply in a phased manner.
By 1990, Chile had reported a 100 percent metering of households, which incentivised people to save water and allowed the government to put a subsidy program in place for the water security for the poor.
“This is purely a behavioural advantage. When people start paying for what they are using, they start looking at water wastage (seriously),” said Shukla.
The real time tracking of one’s consumption has seen a strong relation to behavioural change. A Wired article cited a study that harnessed the power of feedback loops to motivate drivers to drive within the speed limit in suburban areas.
The setup involved a sign that displayed a car’s speed in real time, which was placed just above a speed limit sign. The study saw that 10 percent of the cars who went above the speed limit, on reading their current speed, reduced it for several kilometres.
Similarly, a monthly tracking of one’s high water consumption, which translates to a higher water bill, may have nudged the residents to reduce their water consumption.
When Shukla started speaking to potential customers in their vicinity, a few of them asked if there was a way to remotely switch off the water supply.
“The reason being that there are people who do not pay the maintenance charges. While the electricity supply was not under their control, the water supply was, and if somebody is not paying the maintenance bill, then they can switch off their water supply,” said Shukla
This led to the development of a remote operable valve in WaterOn, now part of SmarterHomes' standard products.
Initially, the idea was to record the heavy consumption and send data to the servers on a monthly basis. After some rejigs to the product to make it more energy efficient, it could now track this in real time, a major boost in tracking wastage.
Close to 25-30 percent of the world’s water supply is wasted due to a leaking a flush somewhere. A trickle flow from the flush tank has the potential to leak upwards of 600 litres of water everyday. Shukla claims that such leaks can be detected by installing a meter at every point to track its consumption.
It took the duo a whole year to perfect the prototype, and in February 2014, SmarterHomes was officially incorporated.
Each device is connected to the internet, and consumption data is uploaded onto a cloud server in real time for aggregation and billing. For the apartments, SmarterHomes has a cloud platform for the management of data. There was no need to take a separate reading and residents also had the option of paying bills online.
“Since these devices are continuously connected, We know the health of the meter, the battery level and whether the device is working or not. We monitor the health of each device on a command centre. It offers the customers proactive, preventive maintenance and virtually zero downtime.”
After SmarterHomes brought WaterOn to the market, they bagged their first customer in July 2015. The company had to initially persevere to increase their sales. Between 2014 to end of March 2016, the company had only sold 2,000- 3,000 meters.
One of the reasons, they realised, behind their lacklustre sales was the prohibitive cost of the product which was around Rs 12,500 per unit.
In April 2017, the company raised funds from Macquarie Bank, with which they offered the product as a service on a 10-year-contract, as opposed to a capital expense model.
Thus, Shukla says that WaterOn’s features, which include the real-time measurement of consumption; the monitoring of leakages; the ability to control the water supply if there is a leakage; a completely automated platform for societies and apartment complexes to set up their billing cycles, could be availed with no need to buy the meter.
Sales began to pick up after these crucial reframing of the product. In FY18 , SmarterHomes sold 18,000 units. And in FY19, they sold 30,000 units as of January 2019.
Shukla admits that people do not take water and its conservation seriously.
“People take water for granted. They feel that it is going to be available forever, but it is not the case. There maybe several options for generating electricity and power through wind and solar power. But it is not so in the case of water supply as it is very difficult to generate."
Eshwer Kale, a researcher with Pune-based water conservation organisation Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), explains the on-ground situation regarding India’s water availability.
“We have almost four percent of freshwater available, as compared to other countries, with India covering only 2.6 percent of the world’s surface area,” he said.
Kale also said that India is the highest groundwater extracting country in the world, followed by China, and the US.
“So if you club the water usage of US and China together, India’s water consumption is still higher,” he said. Kale also pointed out that by global standards, India is a water scarce country. Looking at the annual per capita freshwater availability, the indicator used to gauge water scarcity across countries, India’s per capita annual consumption during independence in 1947 was above 5000 cu.m.
But in the race for pulling groundwater for cash crops, electrification, a shift to cultivating water-intensive crops and creating boreholes slowly saw the water availability getting reduced with each decade.
According to the 2011 data, India’s annual per capita freshwater availability has reduced to less than 1500 cu.m.
“At the global level, if the availability of the freshwater per capita annually is below 1800 cu.m., the country is declared as a water scarce country,” said Kale.
Nonetheless, Shukla is optimistic that people will warm up to the idea of water conservation and is biding his time on the same.
“Conservation is important, and if one can start saving, they are doing so not only for themselves, but also for the next generation,” he said.
Currently, SmarterHomes has provided its services in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. At the time of this interview, Shukla said he planned to service the western market in states such as Gujarat and the northern cities of Jaipur, Gurugram and the NCR belt.
He also found out that it is not only India, but other countries that have the same problem with respect to the way buildings have been designed to not be able to accommodate a water meter.
“We are present in Oman, South Africa and Namibia. I want to expand my focus a little more seriously in the next two to three years, and consolidate our position in Africa and the Middle East,” he said.
Not one to be content to aid in water conservation, SmarterHomes is also testing another product in Bangalore and Hyderabad along similar lines that ensures the minimal usage of Diesel Generator (DG) power, given its exorbitant price, and heavy consumption of resources.
“If you use six hours for DG power, it is 10 times more expensive than mains power,” said Shukla. Thus the aim of this product being to ensure minimal usage of DG power to ensure minimal consumption of fuel and electricity.
Thus, SmarterHomes hopes to reach out to the Indian consumer to conserve, by showing how its products could be an investment for cutting down expenses that come with the wastage of resources.