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Open Access Research article

Collecting household water usage data: telephone questionnaire or diary?

Joanne E O'Toole*, Martha I Sinclair and Karin Leder

Author Affiliations

Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, The Alfred, Melbourne, Victoria 3004, Australia

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2009, 9:72  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-9-72

Published: 9 November 2009



Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA), a modelling approach, is used to assess health risks. Inputs into the QMRA process include data that characterise the intensity, frequency and duration of exposure to risk(s). Data gaps for water exposure assessment include the duration and frequency of urban non-potable (non-drinking) water use. The primary objective of this study was to compare household water usage results obtained using two data collection tools, a computer assisted telephone interview (CATI) and a 7-day water activity diary, in order to assess the effect of different methodological survey approaches on derived exposure estimates. Costs and logistical aspects of each data collection tool were also examined.


A total of 232 households in an Australian dual reticulation scheme (where households are supplied with two grades of water through separate pipe networks) were surveyed about their water usage using both a CATI and a 7-day diary. Householders were questioned about their use of recycled water for toilet flushing, garden watering and other outdoor activities. Householders were also questioned about their water use in the laundry. Agreement between reported CATI and diary water usage responses was assessed.


Results of this study showed that the level of agreement between CATI and diary responses was greater for more frequent water-related activities except toilet flushing and for those activities where standard durations or settings were employed. In addition, this study showed that the unit cost of diary administration was greater than for the CATI, excluding consideration of the initial selection and recruitment steps.


This study showed that it is possible to successfully 'remotely' coordinate diary completion providing that adequate instructions are given and that diary recording forms are well designed. In addition, good diary return rates can be achieved using a monetary incentive and the diary format allows for collective recording, rather than an individual's estimation, of household water usage. Accordingly, there is merit in further exploring the use of diaries for collection of water usage information either in combination with a mail out for recruitment, or potentially in the future with Internet-based recruitment (as household Internet uptake increases).