Customer Education

All water utilities provide information routinely to the public that they serve – through billings, notices, and the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  In the past, information was provided through printed media only as bill stuffers, bills and articles in local newspapers.  Today, substantially more information is shared via the web and related electronic formats.  The challenge for any water utility is balancing the cost of printing and mailing with electronic posting, when neither format provides accurate information regarding how many customers read/access the information or act upon it.  Utilities can only accurately track who is receiving water and who has paid their bills, and sometimes that can be a challenge as old accounts close and new ones start up.

It will always be the case that water utilities will need to and want to share information with its customers.   Examples include when water rate increases occur and when drought conditions require changes in water use. 

It is important that utilities develop an understanding of the cost of the information sharing and the benefits related to the effort.  Although some information must be shared such as billing and SDWA mandated water quality reporting, water conservation education by the utility of the customers is substantially voluntary.  Therefore, it is valuable to track the costs of educational efforts such that the utility can have an understanding of the benefit of those programs. 

Many “typical” water conservation educational efforts with one-way communications cannot be shown to be particularly effective in reducing customer water demands without some type of integrated program.  Therefore, this best management practice should incorporate a wide variety of informational and educational efforts and programs that water utilities can offer to their customers. All of these efforts can generally be classified as social marketing which is defined as: “The process of communicating with the public in an effort to change people’s behaviors for the benefit of an individual, group, or community” (Silva et. al. 2010). Typical water conservation information and education programs may include some or all of the following elements:

  • School education programs (K-12)
  • Bill stuffers
  • Newsletters
  • Media relations (news stories and press releases), direct mail and marketing materials
  • Advertising campaigns (newspaper, radio, TV, web, billboards, theater slides, bus signs, etc.)
  • Informational and educational websites
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Water festivals and public events
  • Informational billing (customer feedback on water use patterns and leakage)
  • Conservation kit give-aways
  • Xeriscape demonstration garden

Note that for the AVC participants, the District will partner with local water utilities to reduce the cost of performing certain aspects of local customer educational programs – by supplying mailers, technical and media support, K-12 educational support, sponsoring water fairs, etc.

The American Water Works Association’s Water Research Foundation report, Water Conservation: Customer Behavior and Effective Communication (Silva et. al. 2010) provides a helpful checklist for developing any type of water conservation outreach campaign. Applying the principles and recommendations in this checklist to the extent possible will improve the effectiveness of water conservation education and information programs. Budget constraints will often set limits on the scope and breadth of an outreach campaign, but thinking strategically can help a utility make the most with limited funds.

From a local water efficiency perspective, customer education may be most effective in circumstances where customers and water utility staff can exchange information face-to-face, and the results of the exchange can be tracked (meaning that changes in water use demand can be explicitly tracked comparing “before” and “after” water demands).  Examples of face-to-face educational efforts that can be employed by water utilities include:

  • Canvassing and messaging (using focus groups)
  • Providing technical assistance training and workshops
  • Conducting Audits

The following italicized section is adapted from Silva et. al. 2010, (reprinted from the CWW Guidebook of Best Practices for Municipal Water Conservation (2010)).

Use a Strategic Communications Approach
Think strategically. Develop a sound approach based on clear, consistent, timely and strategic communications with social marketing techniques to deliver the right message to the right audience through the right channels at the right time. A strategic communication approach requires a solid understanding of the current situation. What are the barriers that prevent the target audience from acting upon a specific behavior? How are audiences receiving information and which messages might most compel them to action?

Define Campaign Objectives
Set objectives and define the target audience. Will the campaign try and reach the entire population served or a subset of customers? Without a clear understanding of what is to be achieved and who needs to be reached, the campaign will not be focused and the results may be fragmented and weak. The objectives directly determine the best strategy to take and the audience to target.

Identifying distinctive objectives allows the development of activities, which target specific audiences to fulfill individual goals. For instance, some campaign activities may need to be tailored for different audiences. To use the 4 P’s - (product, price, place, and promotion) as an example, the “place” where messages and activities are delivered will be different for homeowners than for business owners. Defined objectives will facilitate an easier examination of the general ROI (return on investment) for each audience. Monitoring and evaluating achievements over time will inform which media channel best fulfilled the goals. This results in greater informed planning for future social marketing initiatives.

Know Your Audience
To successfully engage in social marketing, you have to know your audience:

  • What do they know?
  • What stage of change are they in?
  • What do they like? What interests them?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their barriers to change?

The planning process takes the target audience into account by addressing the elements of the “marketing mix” product, price, place, and promotion. Water conservation messages often work over time and through repeated exposure. Many consumers already have a high level of awareness about water conservation practices, and make a concerted attempt to integrate water conservation practices into everyday life. A good approach to improve understanding of your audience is through survey research or focus groups. This helps develop messages aimed at overcoming informational or attitudinal barriers. Messaging should move consumers to action. Saving money is becoming a higher priority in households across the nation, so messages should address this issue as appropriate and necessary. Utilities need to exercise caution when using a message related to saving money. For example, buy a low-flow shower head will lower water use only if all other factors (such as length of shower remain the same). Message may require a specific caveat that explains how actual dollar savings can be achieved.

Understand Current Perceptions
Many consumers believe they are already conserving as much water as they can. However, drought can be a powerful motivator to further water conservation activities. Take into account conservation efforts that consumers practice least often in your community.

Carefully Consider Communications Channels
Using multiple communications channels can be effective in disseminating information about water conservation to consumers (e.g., utility bill inserts, print advertising, radio spots, and web presence). Coordinate messaging and maintain consistency. Research has found that water supply managers are considered to be the most credible source for water conservation information. Use this to your advantage.

Evaluate Performance
The true test of the effectiveness of the campaign is not the number of PSAs that were aired, but whether they actually contributed to improving water conservation. The levels of evaluation se can be divided into three basic types: process, outcome and impact evaluation.

Customer technical assistance can take a number of different forms; however, with respect to this BMP Tool Box, customer technical assistance is only considered in those circumstances where a specific message or technical skill is taught or covered, and the water use of the customer is tracked.   Typically, the customer is provided with a class or workshop, and the water utility is, in return, provided with the customer contact information which can be used to identify the customer’s water account, and therefore monthly water use over time.

Different types of technical assistance programs may include:

  • Lunch time seminars and workshops on
    • Indoor water use and water savings tips
    • Outdoor water use and water savings tips
    • Xeriscape gardening principles
  • Home and garden shows with experts on hand that can answer questions (this is considered technical assistance only if customers share contact information at the show)
  • Guided naturalist hikes and garden tours

Technical assistance efforts require advertisement, coordination and planning to ensure that appropriate content experts and customers are present to exchange thoughts, ask (and answer) questions, and interact allowing for the transfer of technical knowledge that is meaningful to and useable by the customer.

K-12 education can also create technical exchanges related to water conservation and water use efficiency; however, it is difficult to track impacts and benefits related to classroom or water fair programs.  In addition, in-class lectures and demonstrations typically are better suited for “framing” discussions related to more basic themes of water (e.g., the hydrologic cycle, water chemistry, important of water in our world and our lives, etc.) as opposed to methods for water conservation; such that technical assistance does not include generally include K-12 education[1].

[1] High school courses in water conservation, and some informal educational efforts that might be performed in after school programs or with scouting organizations may be considered to be as effective as technical assistance to home and/or business owners.



All audits involve a review of current individual customer water use practices and behaviors, and an assessment of potential water saving opportunities.  A good audit will include recommendations for improvement in water use efficiencies, framed with costs and periods of payback for specific investments.  Audits are conducted through a combination of data collection and assessment, augmented by a site visit where owners and/or operators are interviewed and information is collected to characterize water use.  It is valuable to obtain the last two years of monthly water use data for the home and/or facility prior to the site visit such that the data can be reviewed and anomalies can be identified and investigated. 

Once the site visit is completed, a model of the water use at the residence and/or facility can be developed and calibrated to measured water use over time.  This model can be used to support an assessment of alternative future water use scenarios featuring different configurations of fixtures, appliances, and behaviors.

Note that system wide water audits are also a best management practice; however, these audits are performed system-wide and not for individual customers.

Residential and business energy audits have become popular and readily available over the past decade, due to the availability of energy demand reduction funding.  Water audits have not been as popular or as readily available, however, given that the nature of these audit types are similar, energy and water audits can be performed concurrently to take advantage of customer availability and the combined benefits of water and energy savings.  Therefore, future utility audit programs may be able to take advantage of energy audit programs to fund water audit programs.

Three types of audit procedures are provided in the CWW Guidelines of Best Practices for Municipal Water Conservation:

Residential Audits

These audits are typically provided to those residential customers that request an audit from the utility.  The utility can target the high water users for promoting and recommending the audit; however, experience indicates that audits are not typically required, and are doled out to those customers that request the service.

(Guideline of Best Practices BP 13 Residential Water Surveys, Evaluations Targeted at High Demand Customers)

Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (ICI) Audits

As with the residential audits, ICI audits are typically performed on a voluntary basis.  However, experience indicates that commercial sectors can be effectively targeted with audit programs, especially if the audits are accompanied by fixture giveaways that will immediate save energy and water (e.g., high efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators, pre-rinse spray nozzles).   However, some national commercial organizations with multiple storefronts have policies that limit the ability of local managers to change fixtures and appliances.  For this reason, ICI audits are sometimes best focused on locally owned and operated businesses including hotels, restaurants, bars, laundries, schools, etc.

(Guideline of Best Practices BP 14 Specialized Non-Residential Surveys, Audits and Equipment Efficiency Improvements)

Irrigation Only Audits

Given that home owner associations (HOAs), institutional irrigators (e.g., schools, parks, jails) and some commercial irrigators may constitute some of a utilities largest water users, and that summer peaking demands can create substantial challenges for some utilities, irrigation only audits can be significant water demand reducers.  Part of the dynamic is that automated irrigation systems often waste water when left unmonitored.  In additional, some organizations would prefer to pay low water costs than sacrifice green.  Irrigation water audits can be effective in identifying outdoor water inefficiencies caused by broken or worn sprinkler heads, systems that operate at high pressures, properly designed sprinkler coverage, irrigation clocks that are incorrectly set, etc.  

(Guideline of Best Practices BP 10 Irrigation Efficiency Evaluations)