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Technology & Entrepreneurship

Smart Home Experiment May Change How We Conserve Water, Build And Live

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Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

On the banks of the Llano River, just south of Junction, Texas, amongst the cactus and mesquite trees sits a house that researchers hope will change the face of conservation.

  

Atmospheric scientist Brian Ancell walked along the edge of this mesquite field. He walked past a small wind turbine, past a beige double wide prefabricated home with a solar array and around the corner to a central piece of his experiment: a 10,000 gallon water tank filled with rainwater.

“This is the water tank,” he said, pointing to the round tin enclosure. “A pressure sensor sits on the bottom and knows how much water is sitting on top of it. That data goes to the cloud.”

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Rainwater will make up 100% of the homes water unless it falls below a certain threshold. Brian Ancell points to where he thinks it would need to be for the grid to dump water.

He bent over and turned on the spigot of a smaller tank. Water poured out onto the dry, loamy soil.

“The reason we are focused on water is because water is one resource that can go away. The wind will always blow, and the sun will shine,” Ancell said. 

He and his co-investigators want to change people’s conservation behavior, how they build communities and how they live. 

“We’re engineering a social change,” said Carol Lindquist, Texas Tech University associate professor of sociology and one of five co-investigators on the HUMS project (Home Utility Management System), which draws on disciplines ranging from social science to engineering to atmospheric science. 

They will do it with a spacious four-bedroom house, built by San Antonio startup Braustin Mobile Homes

It looks like something you’d find on Airbnb under the post heading “Cabin in the country” or “You’ll love this quaint rural gem,” with descriptors like “off the beaten trail.”

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
The Llano River, stretching south of Junction, Texas, is the site of an innovative experiment

Despite a nondescript exterior and isolated surroundings — it’s located on Texas Tech’s Llano Field Station — it will have something none of those other houses have: a smart-home system that monitors every drop of water and every watt of electricity, and then it tells you how to use it. 

It's something that doesn't currently exist in regular homes.

Lindquist said to influence people’s behavior, the end of the month water bill isn’t enough. People have to see their use in real-time.

Subjects living here will know exactly how much water they have in their tanks, how they’re using it, how much rain is coming and, most importantly, suggestions on how to make the water last.

For instance, if there is no rain is in the forecast, the system will tell you, “Hey, run the dishwasher every three days instead of every day, and you may need to shower every other day.”

“And you say, ‘Ah man, it’s hot, it’s summer, it’s Texas. I want to shower everyday,’” Lindquist said.

Users then have to decide to either make the sacrifice or risk running out and getting water from the grid.

“So you can accept some of the recommendations and reject others. And I think that’s the key,” she said. “You don’t have to be conserving. You can choose to be conserving.”

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
HUMS Home #1 sits along this gravel road, apart from most of the other Texas Tech structures.

Researchers will test the house on volunteer couples for six months at a time. They don’t expect any problems recruiting couples to this out-of-the-way field station, even though Kimble County is known more for its deer population than its nightlife.

“We’ve had so many people of all ages: retired couples, graduate students and everybody in between saying, ‘Wow, can I apply?’ said Lindquist. 

The short answer is they can’t. Not yet. The experiment has to be submitted to the overseeing body, the Institutional Review Board, to be approved.

Subjects are expected to conduct long interviews on how it’s going and keep an online journal. Researchers will monitor their gripes, their likes and their conservation. HUMS will then be improved based on these suggestions.

Because what’s the point of making a system that people don’t want to use, Ancell asked.

“I think it’s first and foremost a test bed, and that’s how we tweak things and make it useful in society. I think our end goal is, like we said, to get this into the mainstream,” he added.

For too long, Ancell and Lindquist said, the U.S. has relied on massive grids of power and water. When these things go down, it's catastrophic. For example, Puerto Rico suffered mass water issues after Hurricane Maria. Building these kinds of resilient systems into the grid could avoid the worst of those problems.

A third of Texas is in drought right now, during what should be one of its wettest seasons. 

Droughts are becoming more frequent across the West and around the world. Turn on the faucet and water flows. But it may not always be that way as population growth, natural disasters and climate change challenge the current order, especially in the western United States.

Media coverage of the California droughts made entire regions change water consumption patterns, according to research from Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. 

"The era of mindless consumption is over"

People are adaptable, Ajami said. They need information and recommendations on how to change, and these technologies can provide that. 

“It’s extremely important. The era of mindless consumption is over,” said Ajami. “If we don’t pay more attention, if we don’t try harder to engage people in the process, eventually we will get to the point that we don’t have water.”

After more than four years, the HUMS project hopes to launch this year.

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Credit Courtesy Texas Tech
A map of Llano River Field Station HUMS homes

Once they start the human testing, they will continue for two years. They would also like to add additional houses, but they are low on funds. Texas Tech provided a lump sum, and members of the team has put in around $30,000 of their own money. Lindquist even spent weeks painting the inside of the home.

She says it’s worth it though. 

“Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, the long-term possibilities are — oh — they’re delicious.”

Because they may be able to change how we live and help others impact the world.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.