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Water bill sticker shock might be obsolete after MyWater

You water the flowers and run the sprinklers in the heat. You take 20-minute showers and leave the faucet running as you brush your teeth.

And you probably think nothing of it until you get your water bill three months later.

“There’s no connection to the water you’re using at the moment and how much that really means,” says Anthony Jakubiak, a recent Northwestern master’s graduate. “There’s no meaning behind it.”

Jakubiak, now an interaction designer at Oracle, has a solution. He’s building MyWater, a plug-in touch-screen monitor that tells users how much water they’re using at a given moment, how much they’ve used that day, and how they’re doing compared with their neighborhoods or geographical averages.

That information is released by smart meters, which every 4 to 6 seconds send information on a household’s water usage to its municipality. He’s working out of Northwestern’s Ford Motor Co. Engineering Design Center — with the financial help of a James Dyson scholarship — to create prototypes that range from screens glued to pieces of cardboard to, 150 iterations later, a “90 percent working” prototype.

Jakubiak hopes to help people understand how much water they’re using, but more importantly, when they’re being wasteful. And the major players agree that while people are increasingly conscious of conserving electricity, water usage remains a problem.

“There have been a lot of advances in metering technology over the years, but we’re not yet in a place where people can regularly understand how much water they’re using real-time,” Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association. “When they know that, they’re able to fix leaks more quickly, they’re able to understand how they can use water more efficiently. If they’re being more efficient, that helps the utility be more efficient.”

But Jakubiak hit a roadblock. Water usage data is owned by municipalities, and the technology that collects the data is owned by metering companies.

“The final piece was getting that live data. All this data is encrypted so obviously not anyone can collect [it],” he says. “You have the metering companies, [which] are really the technology gatekeepers, and then you have the municipalities, which are really the information gatekeepers.”

Jakubiak needed help. So he’s turned to the companies that make and manage water meters, which have the resources and connections to bring the product to life.

“There have been ongoing talks this past spring and into the summer even with potential partners,” he says. “We’re working out with licensing and how it would actually be brought to market.”

Another piece of the puzzle will be trying to kick up demand by making people actually care about water — a tricky feat in a place like Chicago where water is cheaper and more accessible than in other parts of the country.

“So until you really have the customer demand or drive and people start to realize that monitoring your water consumption is as important as monitoring your electrical consumption, there’s going to be that element of resistance,” says Dyson senior design engineer Rob Green. “Convincing the general public that water monitoring is a good idea, or convincing the water companies the monitoring is a good idea from their point of view.”

Now up for a $45,000 James Dyson Award, Jakubiak is balancing his job at Oracle with MyWater. The process is slow, but it’s something Jakubiak thinks he has to get through.

“I feel like if I come back to the space in five years it’s going to be too late,” he says.

Green agrees, saying waiting could mean someone beats Jakubiak to the punch.

“There are plenty of systems where you can monitor your electric consumption,” he says. “But I certainly think in terms of water monitoring this is a first.”