Changing Consumer Behaviors to Impact Water Infrastructure Planning

14 Mar 2022  |  Steph Aldock

Predicting Demographic Shifts Is Key to Understanding Water Infrastructure Needs and Priorities.

When thinking about infrastructure planning, on a macro level, one doesn’t often consider the impact of the consumer—in this case, the water user. This is especially true when considering that four million miles of underground, or “hidden,” pipes connect our communities. But it’s precisely this infrastructure that is crucial for delivering water into our kitchen faucets and bathroom showers and collecting our wastewater for passage to the sewage treatment plant.

The world we live in is not static, shaped by changing consumer behaviors, from where we live and work, to how we manage the household bottom-line and our environmental footprints. Never did this become more apparent than in March 2020, when the world shut down in the wake of COVID-19 prompting us to rethink our priorities.

New housing starts point to infrastructure capacity growth and remote workers are shifting water usage away from cities to the suburbs. The more time we spend at home, the more likely we are to upgrade our appliances, redo our kitchens, and think about our lawns. All of these seemingly benign changes, in fact, play a role in the US$104 billion market for pipe networks.  

As we embark upon the two year anniversary of Covid-19, our team of analysts has been driven to closely monitor key factors that are reshaping how we, as a society, manage water going forward. A few changing consumer behavior trends impacting water management we have identified include:

More people are working from home than ever before, and in turn, using more water. Household water usage grew 21% over pre-COVID levels in April 2020, due to increased time at home. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two years into the COVID Pandemic, 59% of U.S. workers are working from home all, or part, of the time. This spike in water usage is putting more pressure on water and wastewater systems that did not plan for this sudden demand on capacity. While the U.S. economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020, spending on home improvements grew more than 3.9% to nearly US$420 billion.

Urban flight, demographic shifts changing geographic demands on water infrastructure. Pre-pandemic there was a move to toward urbanization, but now people are reconsidering their housing options. They are moving in search of more space, from rural communities to booming towns like Apex, North Carolina and Boise, Idaho. This seemingly overnight shift has set forth an increase in new housing builds, home expansions, and irrigation system enhancements that are stressing unprepared local water systems. As Bluefield has noted before, many of the smaller water and wastewater systems in the U.S. are also those facing the greatest operational and financial challenges.

Consumers are taking control of their water (and energy) footprints.  The convergence of climate, technology, and business models underlies a transformation of water usage and management within the household. Often overlooked because of low total usage volumes—relative to agriculture and industry—domestic water management is now emerging as an opportunity for multiple stakeholders, from technology vendors to insurance companies and property developers. As households become more efficient in their water usage, they are essentially transferring stress onto the utilities. We have already seen utility operators in California raise concerns about the declines in sewage flows because of water conservation measures. Historically, water systems are built for expansion, not contraction.

Technology is not the issue, but rather the opportunity.

All of these trends should be forcing municipal utilities to rethink their long-term strategies, whether it be to re-engineer their centralized footprints to a more distributed treatment layout or to take advantage of stormwater as a resource. Technology is not the issue, but rather the opportunity. As a result, the company landscape for the water sector is changing, ushering in smart home providers, metering companies, insurance firms, and start-ups looking to benefit.

When considering water infrastructure needs, priorities, and growth, one cannot forget about the consumer.