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If you’re like most people, you probably don’t really think about how much water your home is using until the bill comes. At which point you ask: Where could all that water be going? Do we have a leak? After checking the toilets and taps, it’s forgotten again until the following cycle.
Nudge Systems’ Pleco Smart Water Watch aims to give homeowners a convenient way to monitor their water usage—including a near real-time look at where it’s all going. Unfortunately, the current iteration of Pleco doesn’t come close to meeting that goal, although it does at least have a good idea or two buried inside an otherwise ill-considered product.
In the four years and more than 250 stories I’ve written for TechHive, I can safely say that no product has baffled me more thoroughly than the Pleco Smart Water Watch. I don’t mean it’s baffling in what it does or how it works. Primarily I’m talking about its downright demented industrial design.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart water leak detectors, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
Pleco comes in a sizeable plastic container (which we’ll get to in a minute) and primarily consists of two parts. The first and craziest is the sensor, which attaches directly to your water meter. While a product like the Flume Smart Water Monitor offers a self-contained, streamlined sensor that includes an integrated wireless unit to send information back to your home, the Pleco sensor is a multi-part device. The Pleco sensor itself is a small disc attached to a rubber strap that, like Flume’s, is lashed to your water meter. This is connected via a cable to the brains of the operation, a chunky cylinder powered by four D batteries that sits next to the water meter.
A telescoping antenna—like the kind on an old transistor radio—can be extended from the top of this cylinder. On top of that antenna, you’ll find a second antenna attached to a directional reflector the size of a credit card. The wild idea is that you extend the first antenna upward (presuming your water meter is underground, like mine is) and aim the reflector toward your home, so that obstacles and earth don’t block the signal.
The second piece of hardware is the display, a touch-sensitive tablet that collects data from the sensor and displays it in real time. The display also serves as a bridge between Pleco’s custom 433MHz radio and your Wi-Fi network (2.4GHz only), though setting up this connection is necessary only if you want to also access Pleco’s data via mobile app.
The display isn’t the most sophisticated device, using an old-school resistive touchscreen that makes for both a grainy screen and clunky, erratic navigation. But it provides a convenient way to see your water usage at a glance if you don’t want to bother with another app on your phone. The tablet includes a rechargeable battery, but for the most part needs to be connected to wall power 24/7 to ensure it stays active.
Setup is straightforward, involving answering a few questions on the tablet and following a calibration step that has you fill the aforementioned container with water. After that, you’re ready to start tracking your water usage—at least in theory.
So, let’s get down to the myriad problems with all of this, the foremost being that the sensor’s telescoping antenna situation is straight-up deranged. Nevermind that having this thing rising out of the ground in front of my house makes it look like something the NSA is using to keep tabs on me, and never mind the damage it does to your curb appeal, or how tempting a target it would be for mischievous kids and vandals. The biggest issue is that, with the antenna erupting from the box the water meter is in, it’s physically impossible to put the cover back on.
The next problem is that, despite this outrageous antenna setup, Pleco offers a stated wireless range of only 50 feet. I was able to stretch that to about 80 feet, but it was still far too short to reach my house, which is more than 200 feet from my water meter. That meant I could only track water usage while I was essentially standing near the water meter with the display in hand, because the sensor does not seem to be able to store water usage data and relay it later in the event the display goes offline.
As a workaround, I ended up plugging the unit into an outdoor outlet near the water meter and checking it periodically, though this was necessarily a bit of a temporary hack that wouldn’t work for the long term.
This was too far away from my home’s Wi-Fi router for the bridge function to work, but I was able to gather some information on the mobile app by carefully positioning the tablet midway between the sensor and my home, at least while the tablet’s battery lasted. (The app is basically a duplicate of the tablet interface and doesn’t offer any added features or connectivity to other smart devices—such as a smart water valve shutoff.)
I left this delicate arrangement in place for a week, after which I was excited to see what Pleco had to say about my water usage. Results: Pleco estimated that 97 percent of my water went to irrigation, less than 1 percent was used for toilets and showers, and 2 percent went to “other.” The only other water source Pleco can identify is “faucet,” which it never detected at all in my testing. That doesn’t gibe well with data I’d previously collected from Flume, which had indicated irrigation was 30 to 50 percent of my typical weekly water usage (depending on the weather) in recent weeks, and which seems a lot more accurate based on my knowledge of our water usage patterns.
I could talk about Pleco’s other issues—its instructions never tell you to install the batteries, for example, or how to do so; or that I never received an email confirmation when I registered my account, which meant I couldn’t access the app for days until a tech-support rep got back to me—but that seems like piling complaints on top of a product that’s already a disaster from the start. Frankly, I can’t safely recommend the Pleco Smart Water Watch to anyone in this rendition.
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