Utility Service Partners, Inc.

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Water Theft: Leaks Aren’t the Only Way to Lose

Providing clean, potable water to your residents isn’t an inexpensive or simple proposition, but many residents don’t understand the process – they turn on the tap, and they have water. Perhaps it’s the naivety about the process that makes water theft plausible.

Theft can do a lot of damage – for one, there is a cost associated with producing that water and when a utility doesn’t recoup the costs for stolen water, that cost must be spread out across those customers who are paying, increasing their bills. Frequently, when businesses or contractors access water without authorization, they open a fire hydrant or tap into a sprinkler system – something that could damage those life-saving systems. Of course, during a drought, when supplies are low, water theft is especially egregious.

Residential customers who are stealing water usually employ a meter jumper – a piece of pipe or hose that replaces a meter. It is usually removed between meter readings and the meter replaced for the reading, resulting in artificially low billing. This can be prevented by locking meter housings or meter yokes or easily discovered by varying the schedule for meter readings. Running a usage auditcan show if a homeowner has a steep drop in gallons used.

Stealing water also can do damage to the meter, while costing quite a lot in lost revenue. A Waynesboro, Virginia, man stole more than 96,000 gallons of water, at a cost of $10,000, and much of it was because he had stolen a water valve from an empty home and installed it in his own meter box poorly, allowing an untold amount of water to simply spill into the ground.

Those who can’t afford their bills aren’t the only ones committing water theft. Actor Tom Selleck settled with a California water district for $21,000 after a water tanker allegedly filled up at a Calleguas district fire hydrant, then trucked the water to Selleck’s ranch in Westlake, outside the district, more than a dozen times over two years, ignoring a cease-and-desist order. The settlement covered the cost for the private investigator the district hired to produce proof of the theft. Across the pond, Thames Water, facing unprecedented water losses, has hired detectives to seek out water theft.

In a similar vein, West Virginia American Water announced a crackdown last year on those stealing water – particularly those who have damaged water meters and meter housings, are repeat offenders or threaten employees. The utility announced plans to press charges for stealing utility service with local law enforcement officers.

While some utilities are employing stringent measures to stop theft, some communities have seen success with amnesty – allowing residents to admit their theft and pay for the water, but avoid fines. Others have turned to more modern, tamper-proof meters and hiring regulators to enforce compliance.

Advanced meter infrastructures use real-time data, which can tip utility employees off to sudden changes in usage – and those with accelerometers can alert employees when the meters are removed as it is happening.

Your best and most cost efficient ally in the fight against water theft are your customers. When water is stolen, they subsidize that cost, and you can be sure they’re not happy about it. Tucking a notice about your water theft policy, the cost to ordinary rate payers and an encouragement to report water theft into their monthly bill is a pre-emptive measure to fight water theft.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, partners with municipalities and utilities to provide service line repair plans to homeowners. Customers with a repair plan are more likely to have a leak fixed more quickly, thereby wasting less water. Through this program, a customer simply makes one phone call to our toll free number 24/7/365 to have a local, insured and licensed plumber promptly dispatched. For more information, please contact us.

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Three Things Local Officials Should Know About Water Infrastructure

Originally published on the National League of Cities (NLC) CitiesSpeak blog.

Today, local officials face a problem decades in the making: aging water infrastructure systems and the costs of repair and replacement.

Much of the country’s one million miles of water lines are approaching — or have already exceeded — the end of their usable lifespan. Millions of gallons of potable water are lost beneath our streets, representing not only money lost, but harm to another part of our essential, but underfunded, infrastructure.

Our water systems are in crisis, and it is local officials who have carried the burden of addressing this challenge.

Water Infrastructure Needs an Upgrade

Water is a matter of public health, as shown by several recent outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. Although lead pipes have been banned for decades, many cities have them and can’t find them. Corrosion may leach metals — as seen in Flint — into the water, including cadmium, copper and iron, and the leaks introduced may allow contaminants to enter the water after it has been treated.

More than 40 percent of water infrastructure is considered poor, very poor or elapsed. It is old, with portions installed prior to the Civil War, especially in older cities on the East Coast. An estimated 2.1 trillion gallons — or 6 billion gallons a day — are lost each year. This isn’t surprising, given that 240,000 water main breaks occur annually. Our infrastructure is leaking water and money, and it won’t stop any time soon.

It Will Be Expensive

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates it will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years to repair our ailing systems. Federal, state and local governments have spent an estimated $2.2 trillion over the past 60 years. Local government investments account for 95-98 percent of all water and sewer infrastructure spending, including more than $120 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The bill has come, and it won’t be pretty — the AWWA estimates that in those communities with the greatest need, household water bills will triple.

While nearly 90 percent of Americans agree that our water infrastructure needs an upgrade, fewer than 20 percent of water utilities are confident they can cover the needed cost through rates and fees alone — with the investment shortfall estimated at $655 billion over the next 20 years.

Federal Dollars Alone Won’t Solve the Problem

President Trump announced an infrastructure plan including $200 billion in federal dollars over the next decade. Administration officials said the proposal includes $50 billion in direct funding for rural projects and $100 billion for an infrastructure incentives program for state and local projects. It is hoped that the federal dollars will spur state and city governments to invest an additional $1.5 trillion –either from their own budgets or through public-private partnerships. However, those numbers fall short of the estimated $4.6 trillion in infrastructure work needed, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Federal spending reached its peak in 1976, at $16.8 billion, and has steadily declined since, to about $4.4 billion in 2014 — a nearly fourfold decrease in funding over 30 years. In addition, most of the federal funding since the 1990s have been in the form of loans, while state and local governments shouldered increasing costs. Before the 1980s, government spending on water infrastructure was an upward trend – but those days are long gone.

Five Things Local Leaders Can Do

While the water infrastructure crisis is a problem that must be solved in coordination with all three levels of government, local officials can still make improvements and plan for the future right now. There are several ways to integrate resilient and flexible infrastructure planning into current systems.

  1. Green infrastructure and grey water reuse are environmentally friendly, lower-cost alternatives. Green infrastructure uses existing infrastructure to filter water and direct it away from storm sewers. As one example, Washington, D.C., encourages residents to install their own green infrastructure to divert water from aging systems. Grey water recycling reuses water for industrial or agriculture uses. Orange County, California, has been recycling water since the 1970s, and recently began recycling grey water into potable water.
  2. Rural areas and smaller municipalities may consider regionalization. There are more than 53,000 water authorities in the country, many of them serving areas that can’t supply the resources an aging infrastructure demands. Ratepayers may see savings through the consolidation of administrative employees and resources and increases in efficiency, but regionalization can meet with opposition.
  3. Privatizing allows the system to be taken over by private, for-profit companies. Under some agreements, the municipality can retain ownership and receives a much-needed cash infusion, while the private partner maintains the system, produces water and bills customers. However, some municipalities have found that turning the system over may result in higher water bills.
  4. Planning isn’t the only concern – projects also must be funded. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has worked with private lenders through Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) to provide financing for rural areas, but municipalities also can enter into such agreements. Some P3s tie environmental benefits to financing, which may attract environmentally interested capital, and there is increasing interest in “blue bonds” for water infrastructure.
  5. Just as municipalities wrestle aging infrastructure, so do residents. Local officials can help their community plan for the future by informing residents that they are responsible for the water and sewer lines on their property. In many cases, these lines have not been properly maintained and will need service updates as the infrastructure grows older.

For more information on water infrastructure maintenance and planning, and to find out how your residents can learn more about their responsibilities, contact us.

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How to Conserve Water When You’re Losing It: Pt. 1

Three percent of water on our planet is freshwater and only 1 percent is suitable for drinking, so it’s not difficult to see that water conservation is an important issue for the planet – and one that can save utilities and their customers money.

Conservation is good for the planet and your bottom line, but it’s not as easy as asking your customers to use less water, especially when your system is losing water because it’s aging and in poor repair. An estimated 2.1 trillion gallons – or 6 billion gallons a day – are lost each year, and 240,000 water main breaks occur annually.

Much of the country’s one million miles of water lines are approaching the end of their usable lifespan. More than 40 percent of water infrastructure is considered poor, very poor or elapsed, and the American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given the nation’s infrastructure failing grades.

Of $200 billion needed to update aging infrastructure to meet regulatory requirements and quantity and quality concerns, approximately $97 billion, or 29 percent, will be needed for water loss control. The average loss is 16 percent through loss and theft, and 75 percent of that is recoverable.

Losses can come from authorized, but unbilled consumption; unauthorized consumption, or theft; and data handling errors and metering inaccuracies.

In fact, an audit of the entire system is a great opportunity to find places where water is being lost because of failing pipes. A data audit can look to compare authorized and unbilled consumption, billed consumption and unauthorized and unbilled consumption.

Non-revenue losses, including real losses from leaking pipes, apparent losses from billing and meter errors and both authorized and unauthorized, unmetered use, can stack up. Leaks can cause damage to other infrastructure, such as roadways and sewers, and even to customers’ homes, while large breaks can be costly both in cash and good will.

An American Water Works Association assessment of 246 utilities’ water audits found a collective apparent loss of more than 29 billion gallons at a cost of $151 million. At the same time, real losses because of leaks was more than 130 billion gallons.

A water audit, including physical inspections, flow analysis and leak detection tools such as sonic leak detectors and visual inspections, will help determine where these real losses are most likely originating from and which ones are in greatest need of repair through pipeline and asset management. Pipeline management is a plan for maintaining, repairing and replacing old pipes and installing new ones based on condition and demand.

The AWWA also notes that the great majority of hidden leaks are found in customer service lines – and they are not repaired in a timely or efficient manner.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, partners with municipalities and utilities to provide service line repair plans to homeowners. Customers with a repair plan are more likely to have a leak fixed more quickly, thereby wasting less water. Through this program, a customer simply makes one phone call to our toll free number 24/7/376 to have a local, insured and licensed plumber promptly dispatched. For more information, please contact us.