Free Money to Save Water? You Can Do It, and Here’s How

MeterHero is signing up big brands to give consumers money for every gallon they conserve.

(Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images)

Nov 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Would you try to save water if someone paid you to conserve?

A start-up called MeterHero thinks so. Last week, the company started paying out cash rebates to people who curb their water consumption. It’s not a lot—$1 for every 100 gallons saved—but the initiative marks a new approach to conservation.

Getting a grip on your water use can be a pain, given that utilities reveal consumption in unfamiliar terms (centum cubic feet, anyone?) and too infrequently (as in every month or three).

MeterHero gives consumers an online platform to track how much water they use in terms they can understand.

McGee Young, a political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, founded MeterHero earlier this year to address what he observed as a contradiction between the utility business model and the need for conservation in an increasingly water-stressed world.

“One of the things we discovered early on is that most utilities struggle with water conservation as a concept because their revenues depend on using water,” Young said. “Raising water rates is very unpopular, so there’s pressure to keep rates low. I don’t think we can count on our water utilities and our government agencies to do the job for us.”

MeterHero’s solution: provide incentives for both consumers and businesses to use less water.

Anyone who has a water meter can sign up. Most of MeterHero’s 1,000 users live in the U.S. and Canada, though people as far away as Europe, Australia, and India have signed up, according to Young.

Those with utility accounts can have their readings automatically synced to MeterHero. The company can also incorporate data from gadgets that clamp on to water pipes to monitor water use and can detect leaks using flow sensors.

Living in an apartment building with a shared water meter? Building owners can sign up and add their tenants’ email addresses to the account, and the rebates will be divvied up equally among the residents.

You can also compare your water consumption with your neighbor’s.

When a person’s water use falls below the average of the last two years, MeterHero makes a payment in cash via PayPal, Bitcoin, or Venmo. There’s no limit on the number of rebates you can receive.

MeterHero is paying the first $10,000 in rebates. The next round will come from businesses that have developed an overall water conservation strategy, Young said.

Why would businesses want to pay consumers for saving water at home?

“The companies that are participating understand the importance of an available water supply for their business,” Young said. “If we don’t have water, we don’t have economic growth, or they don’t have markets or ability to run their businesses. So they want to do something to protect those resources for the long term.”

MeterHero is also a way for companies to tout their own water conservation efforts.

“What we’ve found is that many companies already do quite a bit, but they struggle to find ways to tell their story,” said Young. “For example, if a restaurant puts in a low-flow toilet, it’s not like it can advertise that fact on its menu. So, for most of our companies, it’s an addition to existing sustainability programs rather than a first step in that direction.”

Young said he will reveal the names of participating businesses next year; he noted that they are nationally known brands.

By early 2015, MeterHero hopes to secure commitments to pay $100,000 in rebates, which will save 10 million gallons of water.

Participating businesses will pay MeterHero a fee based on the percentage of total rebates they disburse.

“There’s going to be no greater public policy challenge we’ll face in our lifetime than managing increasingly scarce resources in a growing population,” Young said. “That’s why we’re doing this. We have no alternative but to think creatively and outside the box on how to manage our water supplies.”