WaterGenius promises a free tool to help California fight the drought

Can California survive the drought One Oakland-based company thinks it has part of the solution. BKi's free WaterGenius website--expected to open next week--could help homeowners cut down on water consumption.

The state desperately needs water conservation. California is in the fourth year of a record draught, and things are getting scary. While much of Texas and Oklahoma are being inundated with rain, we Californians suspect that our beautiful state will dry up entirely and blow away.

Redwood trees, amongst the largest and oldest living things on the planet, are dying. Farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are voluntarily giving up a quarter of their water allocations. And according to an Association of California Water Agencies survey, "the vast majority of Californians--some 90 percent--are willing to make significant changes to conserve water..."

Into this worsening catastrophe, BKi--a for-profit consulting and software company specializing in environmental and resource issues--brings us WaterGenius. If it works as advertised, this free online service will help California homeowners figure out how best to change their homes to cut water use, and calculate how much money they can save by making these changes.

If all goes as planned, the WaterGenius website will be available on June 1. Android and iOS apps will come later. I was not able to test the site before writing this article, but BKi President and CEO Brian Gitt walked me through an online demonstration. While this gave me a flavor of what the service will be like, it was nothing like the hands-on testing needed for a real review.

Shop for plants, showerheads, gardeners, plumbers...

The first thing the WaterGenius website asks you for is your city. It needs that information so it can recommend plumbers, gardeners, contractors, and other local professionals. But your location also tells WaterGenius what you're paying for a gallon of water, so it can calculate what you'll save if you make recommended changes. The differences can be severe. According to Gitt, a gallon of water in Palo Alto costs seven times what it does in Gilroy.

Once the site knows where you are, you'll get a list of seven items that you might want to replace with something more efficient, including showerheads, kitchen and bathroom faucets, dishwashers, and toilets. You can check and uncheck these options, to concentrate on what you want or to see what will provide the biggest savings.

For most homes, that would be the landscape. WaterGenius tells us that "Up to 60% of a typical California home's water is used to irrigate the lawn." The site displays various water-saving garden options, and it can provide you with local gardeners to do the work for you. (You can do the work yourself, of course, if you've got the time and a green thumb.)

You'll find a similar experience with the indoor options. For instance, WaterGenius can show you multiple low-flow showerheads, each with a WaterSense logo (sort of a plumbing version of Energy Star) to prove that it meets EPA criteria. The site may also provide prices for more than one retailer. And, of course, it will refer you to local plumbers.

How does BKi know which products, and which professionals, are worthy of recommendation Gitt freely admitted that the company doesn't do its own testing. Instead, it uses standards and certifications such as WaterSense, and it aggregates consumer reviews from such sites as Home Depot, Yelp, and Amazon.

For service professionals, it turns to groups such as the California Landscape Contractor's Association. "There are a lot of unlicensed contractors out there, and we don't want to recommend them," Gitt explained.

How much will this actually help

WaterGenius won't save California--for a number of reasons.

It's one thing to say that you're willing to cut water use. But replacing your dishwasher, washing machine, faucets, toilets, and manicured lawn are an entirely different issue. I suspect that most Californian homeowners will be reluctant to shell out thousands of dollars to make these changes.

Changing your water-using habits , on the other hand, doesn't cost a dime. But it has a steep learning curve, and it isn't what WaterGenius is about. "We'll have links on behavior and conservation," Gitt told me, "but the big savings will come when you upgrade."

Besides, regular consumers don't use all that much. About 80 percent of California's usable water goes to agriculture (although some vigorously dispute that statistic). Yes, we need food, but without finding solutions in that sector, nothing else will matter.

But I suspect that next time I need to replace a water-using device, I'll check WaterGenius to see what's recommended. After all, the site is free.

BKi plans to release a paid, professional version later this summer, geared towards businesses, campuses, and apartment houses. The free version, the company hopes, will "build awareness" for the future paid one.

Gitt insists that retailers, local professionals, and others to whom WaterGenius will steer business are not paying for their visibility. "No one is contributing financially at this point."

WaterGenius isn't the panacea for the drought. But if it works as described, it will be a useful resource for Golden State homeowners.


Lincoln Spector

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