While investing in “gently nudging” shower heads, engaging in bathroom multi-tasking, minding your sprinklers, and placing objects in the back of your toilet tank are all fine and dandy ways to cut back on utility costs and feel better about your potentially rampant household water use, it can be said that true conservation doesn’t kick in until you truly understand, in real time, how much of the world’s most taken-from-granted natural resource you are consuming.

Unlike energy usage, which can easily be measured and monitored by individual homeowners thanks to the emergence of smart meters, grasping exactly how much water you consume on a daily — or even hourly — basis isn’t as straightforward. For most folks, the only tool used to gauge water consumption are confounding and cryptic water bills that show up on either a monthly or quarterly basis. Their arrival prompts either a sigh of relief or a groan of displeasure with no real knowledge of where exactly all that water went and how to cut back. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

This is where myWater, a revolutionary gadget that functions very much like home energy monitoring devices, comes in. The device is a plug-in touch screen LCD monitor that enables users to view their real time water usage, compare it over time, and adjust their habits as necessary.

Ideally, users will plug the device — it's slated to cost under $100 if the prototype is further developed and produced and all-important partners are secured— into an outlet near the kitchen, sink, the shower, the laundry room and other areas of the home where there's a significant amount of H2O-related action going on. In addition to receiving accurate information on their own usage, users can even see how their water consumption stacks up to the neighbors and other homes in the area. Because really, nothing can quite drive positive change like a bit of old-fashioned neighborly competition.

The information visualized on the myWater screen would be gleaned via radio frequency signals emitted every 4 to 6 seconds by household smart meters to utilities. For the first time, myWater would permit homeowners to be privy to this info. That is, of course, if metering companies and individual municipalities allow the encrypted data to be accessed.

“There’s no connection to the water you’re using at the moment and how much that really means,” laments the brains behind myWater, Anthony Jakubiak. “There’s just no meaning behind it.”

Earlier today, myWater was announced as the first place U.S. winner of the 2013 James Dyson Award, an international student design competition run by the nonprofit James Dyson Foundation (yes, that James Dyson). Jakubiak, a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Segal Design Institute who is now working as an interaction designer at Oracle, explains the need for a device like myWater on the James Dyson Award website:

As water demand exceeds supply on a scale that has never been seen before, water conservation has become a critical issue for all. Cities will bear real and significant costs if people fail to take the necessary steps to manage their water consumption. Currently, options are limited for households to determine their real-time water use. Because most water in the United States is charged on a monthly or quarterly basis, water bills provide delayed and limited feedback hindering behavioral change. With myWater the path was not linear. Originally, ideas started in the bathroom around greywater reuse systems. However, through observation and prototyping, it became clear that there was a broader problem at hand — a breakdown in feedback on your water use. Every question can be answered with a prototype. myWater was realized through a cycle of sketching, building prototypes, user testing, and refining design direction accordingly.

In a recent interview with Co.Exist, Jakubiak explains his motivation: "The goal isn’t to get you to cut your water use by 90 percent. It’s more that there are little decisions throughout the day when subtle reminders could get you to turn off the faucet or shower sooner. It’s all about creating awareness, and starting a conversation at the dinner table."

As the U.S. winner of the James Dyson Award, Jakubiak will receive $3,150 to further develop myWater and will advance to the international stage of the competition. The international winner, up for a $45,000 cash prize, will be announced on Nov. 7.

Like last year’s competition that saw some rather intriguing entrants, the young innovators competing for this year’s top prize were challenged to “Design Something That Solves a Problem.” NuWave, an alternative to traditional hearing aids, and Revolights, a LED-based bicycle lighting system, were announced by the James Dyson Foundation as the two runners-up in the U.S. arm of the competition which received over 650 entries from students and recent graduates in 18 different countries.

More water-conserving design stories on MNN:

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

myWater: Full H2O-awareness is just a touch screen away
myWater, a clever plug-in gadget that allows homeowners to monitor their water usage in real time, advances to the final round of the James Dyson Award.