Seasonal droughts have been with us forever. But, especially in the western US, they are of increasing duration and severity. Unfortunately, that trend is expected to continue. The result is less water that’s available for people to use—which means higher prices and, increasingly, various forms of rationing. Commercial-scale users have long had tools for monitoring their usage and allowing them to make smart reductions. Until recently, homeowners have mostly only had vague guidelines like “take shorter showers, water less often, get rid of lawns that need irrigation,” and so on.
Flume has introduced a slick tool that will allow most homeowners to get a precise, real-time handle on their water usage. The Flume 2 ($199 from Flume) is a small transmitting meter that ties to your current utility meter. It’s based on your specific meter; you upload a photo to the company’s site and it identifies the meter. Once calibrated, the Flume 2 measures the spinning disk in your utility water meter and sends its output to a plug-in bridge that can be placed anywhere in your house. The bridge connects to Wi-Fi, and ties into both the Flume website and a mobile app.
Installing a Flume 2
Once you’ve verified that your meter is compatible and you’ve received your Flume, installation is pretty simple. If you can reach around your meter, you simply use the rubber straps on your Flume to attach it. If your meter is against a wall or the side of a box, Flume provides additional straps you can use to achieve the same result by attaching it to the water pipe itself.
In case you don’t have a tool that you can use to open your water meter cover, Flume provides one of those as well (for “keyed” water meter covers). Then you simply need to plug the small base unit into an outlet in an area that has access to your Wi-Fi. Amazingly, Flume says the radio between the meter and the base unit can work at up to 1,000 feet. Ours certainly works fine with the base unit in our basement about 150 feet from our water meter. Flume doesn’t seem to worry about battery life, so I’m guessing it draws some power from the spinning meter wheel it uses to measure usage. Some water utilities seem to worry about whether that affects meter readings (to their detriment), but our water utility, CalWater, actually sold us ours for a discount as part of a promotion, so it doesn’t seem to bother them.
Using the Flume App
Installing and setting up Flume’s app is straightforward. I was a bit taken aback when it required a name and address. I assume that is to help it provide data relevant to your specific area and water utility. In any case, if you’re worried about sharing personal data, it didn’t seem to care whether you made something up.
The main screen is a dashboard that shows whether it has detected any leaks, your water usage so far today, your current usage, your usage over the last few hours — by hour — along with some charts tracking your monthly usage so far. Even that screen is enough for basic monitoring, and even for noticing the flow rate when you turn a faucet or hose on or off.
But you can also dig a lot deeper. The detail screen lets you see your water usage by hour, day, week, month, and year. Notifications allow you to customize not only the default leak detection setting, but to create rules for receiving custom notifications. These are fairly flexible in letting you set amounts and lengths of time, but they don’t let you activate rules based on time of day.
For example, we run our sprinklers at 5 AM twice a week (per our current drought guidelines). That triggers the “high-water-usage” notification that we have set in case someone leaves something running. It’d be great to tell Flume to ignore water running at 5 AM. Hopefully, this can be added. One interesting feature is that if you activate “Away Mode,” leak alerts will be texted to an emergency contact. We have more than one friend who has accidentally flooded their house while on vacation, and for whom this feature would have spared a lot of expense.
Machine Learning Puts the ‘Smart’ in Flume’s Smart Water Meter
Like the Sense electric meter that we’ve reviewed previously, Flume uses machine learning to try to identify different categories of water use, including indoor, outdoor, shower, dishwasher, toilets, and clothes washer. We’ve only had ours for a couple of months, but it has successfully identified our irrigation use as outdoors, as well as our dishwasher usage and some of our shower usage. Unlike with the Sense, I haven’t found a way to help it learn by manually tagging known water uses as they occur. If you don’t want it sorting through your water data, you can turn this feature off. Personally, I’m fine sharing it with Flume, unless they become another division of Amazon or Google.
Flume is going through some teething pains with rolling out these features. Its website says that the ML-based “Details+” are only available to Insight subscribers. I seem to have a permanent subscription (presumably it came with my Flume 2), but the “Buy It” page isn’t there. It’s also a bit hard to tell which kinds of data I can see in the app are tied to the subscription. That’s another area where Flume could help by making the situation clearer.
Should You Buy a Flume 2?
The Flume meter is compatible with most current meters, but not all. For example, the company told me that it works with all models of Badger meters except for the Ultrasonic model with a built-in cellular interface. Some utilities are installing those for existing customers so that they don’t have to have people in trucks drive around to read the current short-range meters. Badger has a web portal that does provide some water usage information, but it only sends data once or a few times a day to save cellular bandwidth and perhaps extend battery life. As a result, you can’t use it as a real-time monitoring tool. So if you have a meter that works with Flume, it’s an excellent choice.
At the retail price of $200, the Flume 2 is a bit of a niche product, best suited for big water users, those who live with drought restrictions, and water nerds. In our family’s case, the $50 promotion from our water company made it a no-brainer (especially since we have plenty of drought restrictions).
If you don’t want to spend the money or bother with installing a meter add-on, then some water utilities are moving to Badger cellular-enabled smart meters. These transmit water usage each day, and you can view that data on its version of a personal website. In the case of CalWater, that’s eyeonwater.com. However, it is missing the most unique version of Flume — real-time data. You can learn what happened yesterday, but not what is happening now. I assume that is because it uses a cellular connection to send data to the cloud — which is expensive — compared with the Flume, which piggybacks on your Wi-Fi. These can be read remotely but only at a limited distance, so trucks still have to drive by each house.