KARACHI: Necessity is the mother of invention. For those still in doubt, the story of Jal Bujh – a locally developed smartphone application meant to control gas-powered water heaters (geysers) – should offer a good explanation of the need-innovation relationship specified in this English proverb.

Urdu’s equivalent of ‘on-off’, Jal Bujh is an electro-mechanical device controlled by a microprocessor, which itself is programmed through a smartphone application.

The product can convert gas-powered water heaters into eco-friendly gas-saving appliances, say developers. The product, therefore, has the potential to reduce the country’s domestic gas consumption and help consumers save thousands on their gas bills.

Zia-Imran

Winter, the peak season for domestic gas consumption, has already started and thousands of households might already have turned on their water heaters that have been running on the same technology for over 70 years.

Regardless of one’s need, these appliances would most likely run 24 hours a day for the whole season. This exercise is repeated every year but with a huge cost to the country, which is not producing enough gas to meet the burgeoning demand.

“If you are someone who sets your geyser to hot water for 24 hours a day, you can expect a gas saving of up to 40% [from Jal Bujh] based on your needs,” said Zia Imran, the brain behind the product.

The estimate is based on previous year’s gas prices, which would probably not go up five times, he said, referring to a recent report. Gas tariff for all categories of consumers, including domestic, are likely to be increased by three to five times in a month or so, the report said.

What may offer further explanation for the saving is Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL)’s public notice, which says it costs more than Rs7,000 or $70 per month to run a geyser for 10 hours a day.

With depleting gas reserves and rising gas tariffs, the product could at least mitigate what has now become a national problem – and it was only natural for it to come from a bright mind.

A Cornell graduate, Imran has 12 years of experience in Silicon Valley working with the world’s leading technology companies. He has also served as Pakistan Software Export Board Managing Director and Chairman, Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) for IT and IT-enabled services.

The story behind Jal Bujh

Interestingly, it was the need that gave birth to the idea of Jal Bujh. It all started from a newspaper advertisement by SNGPL, which read “turn on the water heater 30 minutes before use and then set it on pilot”. After reading it, Imran thought it wasn’t practical for consumers to follow the instruction.

Geysers are usually placed at the back of the house or in a corner, which is not readily accessible, Imran says. “Who would want to go out at 5 in the morning to turn his geyser on when it is cold?” he said. That was when he thought about a solution.

Explaining the process, he said one can set an on-off schedule for the geyser on his smartphone app, enabling the microprocessor to set the thermostat to the specified dial setting for any particular time slot.

One can turn the geyser thermostat to full, half, one-fourth and pilot according to his own need and turn it off when not needed at all through this app, which is currently supported by Android and iPhone.

The electrical engineer has used all his experience to make sure the product is as easy to use as possible. Besides quick installation, one doesn’t need to have a smartphone to use the product.

“It is easy to find someone in your immediate circle or neighborhood who has a smartphone that can programme your device,” Imran said. “You programme the device once or tweak your programme a couple of times but then let it run for months. So you don’t need to have a smartphone to use this device.”

After successful tests, Imran is currently seeking funds to commercialise the project – they need $200,000, which will be sufficient for a two-year production.

Although Jal Bujh caters to domestic consumers, it can be modified for the industrial sector – the largest consumer of gas in the country.

“We already have enquiries from large factories with hundreds of gas-powered geysers. We are thinking of making an add-on wireless module, which will then mass programme their geysers in a certain area,” Imran said.