With California’s prolonged drought conditions, water conservation is a matter of utmost concern. One San Francisco nonprofit is pitting its residents against one another in a friendly competition to cut water usage even more.

“We have been thinking about water use in our properties for several years,” says Joanna Ladd, a project manager in the housing development department for Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC), which develops, owns, and manages approximately 25 affordable housing projects and focuses on civic engagement in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.

In 2011, Chinatown CDC took advantage of a program through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, where low-flow toilets and showerheads, faucet aerators, and other water-conserving fixtures were installed for free. At the same time, it started monitoring the buildings’ water consumption through WegoWise, an online tool for tracking utility data and benchmarking water and energy use.

Youths at Chinatown Community Development Center project in San Francisco embraced the water conservation competition by making posters in English and Chinese.
Richard Wheeler of Wheeler Imaging Youths at Chinatown Community Development Center project in San Francisco embraced the water conservation competition by making posters in English and Chinese.

All the properties saw dramatic decreases in the year following the retrofits, but Chinatown CDC noticed some of the properties still had high-baseline average water use.

“We realized that the missing piece was resident engagement and that capital improvements will get you only so far,” Ladd says.

To bring in that resident engagement piece, Chinatown CDC chose three buildings with different populations—family, seniors, and individuals in SRO units—to educate them about water usage, have the residents take a water conservation pledge, and then have the buildings compete to see who could reduce water usage the most.

High school youths at the family development picked water-saving measures they thought would be most relevant to the residents and produced posters for all three buildings in English and Chinese.

Tips included:

  • Use just one glass for drinking a day;
  • When washing vegetables or dishes, fill the basin instead of running water constantly;
  • When boiling vegetables, just cover them with water and don’t fill the pot up all the way;
  • Select the cold water setting on washers; and
  • Turn off water when brushing teeth.

The pilot program, which took place from May to July 2014, also used WegoWise data to keep the residents apprised of their cutbacks. “During the water competition, we provided residents with monthly updates about their water usage. That was a compelling tool to get them motivated,” Ladd says.

At the end of the water competition, the SRO building saw an 18% decrease in water usage and the family project saw a 16% decrease. The seniors building saw a smaller reduction, but coming in last motivated the residents to reduce its water consumption dramatically after the competition ended.  The building now uses about 84 gallons of water per bedroom per day, where it used 100 to 102 gallons per bedroom per day before the campaign.

Ladd also says the three buildings are continuing to see the same amount of savings that happened during the pilot program almost a year later.

“It was really helpful for us to do it in that order [with retrofits first and resident engagement second],” says Ladd. “Residents could see we were doing our part, and then we came to ask them to conserve water. It was more of a partnership.”

Three more buildings are part of the second phase, which started in March.

In addition to engaging residents, Ladd says there are several things owners and property managers can do to reduce water consumption at their properties.

Even though the Chinatown CDC properties were retrofitted through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission program, she says adding faucet aerators, which are cents on the dollar, is something any property owner can do and see immediate payback.

She also suggests having both residents and managers inspect toilets regularly for leaks. “We’ve seen dramatic spikes on WegoWise just because of toilet leaks.”

"The drought has catapulted water to the top of the priority list," says Daniel Teague, director of business development at WegoWise. "We designed our software to make it simple and affordable to identify buildings that are literally flushing water down the drain. Targeted, low-cost improvements like replacing faulty toilets and installing smart irrigation can cut off water waste, combat the drought, and put savings back into in the pockets of low-income tenants that need it most."