By Tami Siewruk
Like most industry consultants, I’m often asked about water sub-metering. A couple of years ago, the question was usually “should we or shouldn’t we?” Lately, the most common questions are “how do we do it without driving our residents away?” In my experience, implementing a sub-metering program creates a lot of unique challenges where resident satisfaction is concerned, but the fundamental key to sub-metering success doesn’t start with resident buy-in… it starts with convincing your on site team!
As any experienced manager or trainer will attest, earning team buy-in is an educational process. When it comes to sub-metering, that means educating literally everyone. Every person on site from Manager to Porter must understand WHY sub-metering is being implemented — and not just told, “We are going to do this because we have to”. The educational process includes, but is by no means limited to, a complete market study to determine which other communities in your market have already implemented the program and which (if any) are considering doing so – do this for lots of reasons, but use this information to let your team know that they’re not alone, that they’re not being asked to pave the way for some awful new campaign to extort residents, and that lots of communities are doing this because it makes sense not only for the community’s bottom line, but for residents too. This is a golden opportunity to train your team members to understand that the management company has a financial responsibility to the owner(s) of the community, and that when we say “bottom line” it equates to the fact that we’re all running a business together. It’s easy for an on-site team to become “married” to their community — and I agree that’s a good thing — BUT it can keep us from remembering that every apartment community is also a business entity with a moneymaking mission!
What your team needs to know about sub-metering in plain language:
- Water is something most people take for granted whether it’s for bathing, dishwashing, laundering, or brushing teeth. But water is a necessary resource that must be conserved. Availability of water in apartment living now and in the future should be everyone’s concern. Water is readily available, but the situation is changing with constant new demands on our water supply.
- Water conservation in apartment homes can help control pollution and diminishing water levels.
- Practicing wise water-use methods in our apartments will benefit both the residents and our community. Using less groundwater and surface water lessens the need for waste-water disposal and helps improve water quality and the environment.
- A typical resident uses from 50 to 75 gallons of water daily.
- Sub-metering makes great sense as a loss prevention measure. When we pay our residents’ utilities out of their rent, there is tremendous potential for that cost to bite into profit. Sub-metering eliminates that particular risk.
- Sub-metering makes preventive maintenance sense. When residents are responsible for their own water consumption, they’re far more likely to report potentially damaging leaks and malfunctions.
- Sub-metering helps keep us competitive. When we eliminate utility costs from the profit equation and factor in the benefits of better preventive maintenance, we’re able to stay competitive for a longer period of time without implementing major rental increases.
- Sub-metering is fair to residents. They pay only for what they actually use. No more, no less.
Beyond educating our team, the second key to sub-metering success is in how the program is actually implemented. Of course, this comes with an understanding that no matter what we do, some residents are always going to be unhappy. So, the question is: Do I rush right in and place the whole community on the program at once and get everybody ticked off at the same time? In my experience, no. This creates that old “us versus them” mentality that we work so hard in everything else that we do just to avoid. When a choice is allowed, I recommend that you implement the program upon lease renewal and at move-in. Remember the Boston Tea Party — there are good and bad ways to achieve a desired result, and forcing everyone to comply with something at once without an option is a surefire way to bring about a rebellion. When you take something that’s not an option, in this case sub-metering, and couch it within an option like signing a lease or renewing, it softens the blow considerably.
What if you can’t wait for renewal time?
Now, if you HAVE to implement the program all at once and can’t wait for renewal time, then brace yourself for what’s going to come and do everything that you can to lessen the impact. Prepare your team AND prepare your residents… otherwise, you’re in for a world of unhappy residents who are going to let loose on your team and you might as well just sit back and watch retention and employee morale unravel before your very eyes. Once you’ve tackled issue one and earned team buy-in, it’s time to get resident buy-in. Do it in your newsletter, send out a memo, call them personally — whatever it takes. Of course, you’re not going to approach your residents with the same NOI message you gave to your team — instead, you’re going to start by introducing them to the positives of water conservation and to sub-metering as a personalization of their rental experience. I don’t think I need to convince you of why this pre-education is important — I’m sure you can imagine well enough what it would be like to have to field all of those disgruntled calls and service requests at once, and maybe have to handle them all within 24-hours, plus the horrible buzz that’s going to be humming outside of your office doors.
Okay, so you know that you have to educate your residents… here are some ideas for HOW. First of all, start as soon as possible before implementation. Lots of communities have successfully implemented “We’re Looking For Drips” campaigns that encourage residents to report leaky faucets, running toilets, etc. It’s a sensible and easy to implement way to pave the way for sub-metering. Use your newsletter and any other communications medium available to you — post articles on the bulletin boards and on your community intranet. Every week, send out a new message that relates to water conservation… what are other people doing to save water? What’s the country doing to save water? Did you know that if you leave the water running while you brush your teeth, you waste an average of three gallons? Continue your education efforts for at least THREE MONTHS after implementation. Here are some tools and tips to get your sub-metering program off on the right foot:
More Water Saving Facts for Your Awareness Campaign
- Fixing leaky faucets and plumbing joints can save 20 gallons per day for every leak stopped!
- Running only full loads in the washer or dishwasher can save 300 to 800 gallons of water per month! Normal dishwasher loads require at least 15 gallons of water, and each load of laundry normally requires about 50 gallons or more of water.
- Shorten your showers! Even a one or two minute reduction can save up to 700 gallons per month. Unrestricted showerheads run at 5 to 10 gallons a minute, and a five-minute shower uses 25 to 50 gallons of water.
- Use tap water creatively! While you’re waiting for hot water to flow, catch the cold water in a watering can to water household plants!
- Turn off the water while shaving or brushing your teeth! It can save up to three gallons a day! A normal faucet runs at the rate of 3 to 5 gallons a minute.
- When washing dishes by hand, use the least amount of detergent possible. This minimizes rinse water needed and saves 50 to 150 gallons per month!
- Don’t let the faucet run while you clean vegetables. Instead, rinse them in a filled sink or pan to save 150 to 250 gallons of water a month.
- Since the earth’s surface is over 70% water, our water supply may seem abundant. The truth is that only 1% of this water is available for human use. 97% is salty, and 3% is fresh, but the majority of earth’s water is frozen at the polar ice caps. The 1% that we use comes from lakes, streams and rivers, or from deep underground aquifers, all of which are finite supplies.
- For the price of a single can of soda — an average 50 cents — many communities deliver up to 1,000 gallons of fresh, clean drinking water to homes.
- Public water suppliers in the US process nearly 34 billion gallons of water per day for domestic and public use.
- The toilet is the biggest household water bandit; the average toilet uses 4 to 7 gallons per flush!
Be prepared – be VERY prepared.
While you’re softening the blow for your residents, remember that you’re just softening… you’re not eliminating the possibility of resident dissent. Get your team prepared, and this goes double for your Maintenance team because as I mentioned earlier, they’re your daily front line of communication with residents. They’re the ones that are going to be presented with the most opportunities to turn your residents’ negative perceptions into a positive one. If they aren’t trained to do so — and I’m not going to mince words here — the dialogue is probably going to go something like this, and you know that it will:
Resident: “…and on top of this mess, I have to pay for my own water now just so you guys can get more money out of me!”
Service Technician: “Yep, that’s a rotten thing alright.”
Not that your Service Techs would ever deliberately undermine your efforts to maintain a positive relationship with your residents… they just aren’t typically trained to handle a buzzing resident. Wouldn’t it be great if your Service Tech turned to that angry resident and said:
“Yes, I understand how that might make you feel, especially right now, but saving water is more important now than most people realize. Besides, since you’re in control now, you only pay for what you actually use instead of getting stuck footing the bill for everyone else who uses more water than you do.”
That almost sounds like a thoughtful personalization, and that’s exactly the idea! Sub-metering IS a thoughtful process! It’s one that should be undertaken with much thought and careful planning. If you think the process through from the perspective of your team members and residents, take every possible opportunity to educate all involved, and then implement with forethought and care, your sub-metering program will be as successful as it can be. You can bet your bottom line on it!
A great bit of comic relief comes to us courtesy of where Steve Matre many years ago, “I was just on a property tour last week of one of our Florida communities which has implemented water & sewer chargebacks over the last two years. My property manager had put together this great Top Twenty list of her favorite comments she has heard from the residents as they pay their water & sewer invoices. Keep in mind as you implement that this is what you need to be ready for:
20.) This is the last dime you’ll ever get from me (said at move-out)!
19.) I don’t even use water!
18.) I drink bottled water!
17.) It’s STILL not fair (several months into the lease).
16.) How do you figure out these charges anyway?
15.) You people are all a bunch of idiots!
14.) You raised my rent twice!
13.) Nobody else charges for water (in Florida, of all places).
12.) I see you have new uniforms. Is that paid for by my water payment??
11.) Where does that money go anyway?
10.) I thought my roommate paid it!
9.) I was abducted by aliens and was not home all month!
8.) I won’t pay and you can’t make me! (they don’t live at our community anymore).
7.) I am always out of town and shouldn’t have to pay.
6.) I already paid it (last month’s bill).
5.) You are going to give me another heart attack by putting these notices on my door!
4.) I was told I did not have to pay!
3.) You’ve made me pay this ten times this year (said in October, the 10th month).
2.) I thought I could pay every three months!
1.) I forgot!
- With a little modification the City of Houston, Department of Public Works and Engineering, Water Conservation Branch and Co-Op America provide a Checklist for Water Conservation that would be an excellent addition to your community newsletter. You will find the checklist and many other great tools and resources online at http://frugalliving.about.com/msubutilwater.htm.