How Much is an Aging System Costing Your Water Utility?

By: Bill Eller September 11, 2019

You may think you’re saving money by delaying capital improvements and approaching repairs on a reactive, instead of proactive, basis. After all, addressing aging infrastructure is a pricey proposition. But so is losing thousands, or possibly millions, of gallons of treated, potable water to leaky pipes and an inefficient system.

broken_pipe_leakAmerican water utilities lose seven billion gallons of treated potable water daily, which adds up to 2.1 trillion a year. Part of the problem is the unprecedented number of water main breaks each year – an estimated 240,000 water mains break annually. This is no surprise when 40 percent of the country’s water infrastructure is in poor condition. This is water you’re not delivering to customers and financial losses are estimated at billions of dollars each year as production and distribution costs are lost.

To combat water loss, operational water efficiency should be a goal, not only to avoid wasting water beneath the ground, but to avoid losing it to outdated pumping and processing equipment. Water efficiency is the practice of using water-saving technologies, such as efficient pumps in your plant or water-efficient appliances in your customers’ homes. Water efficiency is not conservation, although they work hand-in-hand to reduce demand and stress on systems.

Water is a valuable resource your utility is producing and, if you’re losing water, you need to know where and how much so you can recoup as much as possible, both in resources and funds. In order to know what and where you’re losing, you need to do a system audit to separate the apparent losses, from water which is either unbilled, but authorized, stolen or miscalculated because of faulty equipment or human error; and real losses, from water which is lost by the system.

In addition to the environmental and financial impact of leaking water lines, leaks of more than 20 percent of a utility’s water volume also will reduce the amount of pressure in the lines – an issue when the local fire department taps into a fire hydrant. A system audit can help pinpoint problem areas and prioritize repairs.

Both the Water Resource Foundation and the American Water Works Association have self-assessments or audits that you can either use as-is or as a guide to create your own audit. Each year that you audit your system, the more reliable the data will become, year-over-year.

An audit can include physical inspections of the system, flow analysis, billing analysis and leak detection tools, including sonic leak detection. Cross reference available billing and usage data with information such as historical breaks and leaks, line age and composition, areas of heavy usage and where the system is exposed to variable factors such as traffic vibration or construction.

Water won’t only be lost in the distribution system, but in the plant itself – backwashing filters, flushing lines and sludge processing can all contribute to using more water than necessary and therefore costing more money in treatment, including chemicals, equipment wear-and-tear and man hours. Upgrades to your plant are expensive, but grant opportunities are available, particularly WIFIA. In the western states, where water resources are becoming scarce, grant opportunities for making your utility more water efficient can be obtained through the WaterSMART program.

One way to save water is by providing smart meters, although they can come with a higher price tag.  Smart meters record water usage and report it wirelessly, sometimes over a cellular network. Real-time metering not only encourages customers to practice conservation, but it can help them detect leaks.

Some smart meter software can analyze the data provided by meters operating throughout a utility’s territory, providing valuable data or alerting employees to a spike in water usage, which could indicate a leak or theft. Smart meters are more accurate than analog meters, which lose their effectiveness and underreport usage as they age, but are much more expensive.

Meters aren’t just for your customers. Meters at strategic points throughout the intake and distribution systems will allow for better data analysis and a quicker response when irregular usage is detected. Meters should be regularly inspected and calibrated to ensure leakage on transmission and distribution lines or elsewhere in the system can be detected as soon as possible.

Decreasing the amount of water leaving the system will help alleviate potential strain on the system. When your entire system is more water efficient, you increase the available water, decrease the costs of treatment and reduce the pressure on aging infrastructure.

As your system ages, so does your customers’ water service lines, and it’s possible these leaks are both outside your system and unbilled, an inefficient and expensive situation that may be difficult to detect. Your customer may not realize they are responsible for the service line.

A partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program provides educational literature to your customers at no cost to you, so they are alerted to their responsibilities and the possibility of a service line failure. It also offers a low-cost, completely optional emergency home repair plan to your customers and qualifying municipalities and utilities can receive royalties.

Learn how you can better educate your customers by contacting us today.

NLC Service Line Warranty Program partners with municipalities to educate homeowners and offer affordable protection against potentially costly service line repairs. The Program uses a network of local plumbers who have gone through background and drug screenings. The Program’s 500-seat call center is staffed 24/7/365 to answer claims calls and dispatch contractors to address homeowners’ emergencies.

The Program is provided at no cost to cities, and partner cities can receive royalties based on participation.

To find out how you can help your residents achieve peace of mind, contact us.