Startup tries to raise the dirt-cheap price of water

Sam Harnett Jun 2, 2015

Startup tries to raise the dirt-cheap price of water

Sam Harnett Jun 2, 2015

Here’s a question for you: How much is water worth?


We aren’t talking anything fancy here, just regular old tap water. The answer is pretty darn little — less than a penny a gallon in most places around the country.


That is even true in California, where there is a historic drought. It’s become so bad that the state has mandated water cutbacks and is considering fines. One Bay Area company has a different idea to encourage conservation. It wants to change the value of water.


Many of us waste gallons and gallons of water. And that’s not talking about watering large lawns or weekly car washes, but simple things like letting the shower run to warm up. We just let all that water go right down the drain. But not Alice Green.


Green lived in California during the ’70s when the state was in another drought. “I knew then that we didn’t have water to waste,” she says.



Alice Green conserves water and could start earning rebate money with the startup MeterHero. (Sam Harnett)


Green started taking conservation measures back then. She saves “warm-up water” from her showers and uses it to flush her toilet. Instead of a lawn, she has planted drought-resistant native plants. 


Today, Green lives in a co-housing neighborhood, which is a kind of hippier version of a condo association. It has signed up for MeterHero, a startup that tracks your water usage and gives rebates if you conserve. It pays one dollar for every hundred gallons less used.


Green’s neighbor, Raines Cohen, says the 14-house co-op has been working hard on conservation in the past year. It has cut back nearly a thousand gallons a day with things like landscape and irrigation improvements. That kind of conservation would net them $10 a day with MeterHero’s rebates.


 “We will see if we can keep that up, but now we have a strong incentive because of rebates,” Cohen says.


The concept seems pretty straightforward. MeterHero offers a cash carrot to get you to cut back. But the end goal is bigger than that, says founder McGee Young. 


“We can’t raise the price of water,” Young says, “but what we can do is put a value on water, and specifically a value on water conservation.”


The rebates effectively make the water worth more. You are a lot less likely to flush a cash rebate down the toilet than water. But how do we know what price-per-gallon will make people stop taking water for granted?


“We don’t,” Young says. “It’s a big experiment. No one has tried to put a price on conservation.” 


To conduct this experiment, MeterHero needs money to fuel the rebates. Right now, it is using its own cash, but the plan is to get businesses to sponsor the rebates. Companies get some nice PR — save water, save the planet. It could also help sell products, like fake grass.


Brad Borgman is with Heavenly Greens, an artificial turf company that is working with MeterHero. Borgman sees the rebate as a pitch to potential clients.


“You know it never hurts to get a little money back when you’re trying to do your best to conserve,” he says.


Borgman adds that the rebates help connect water-conscious consumers with companies like his. “It seems like an obvious mutual fit so far, a kind of win-win-win for everyone,” he says.


MeterHero is just getting started, and so far it has handed out about $5,000 in rebates. There is a long way to go before most of us start thinking twice about all that water we flush down the toilet.

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