Utility Service Partners, Inc.

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Aging in Place

Home Maintenance is a key factor for aging Americans wishing to remain in their own homes

According to U.S. Census data, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to rise 35 percent from 2010 to 2020, and a growing trend for this population is “aging in place.” A comprehensive study on this subject by AARP explains,

this means to grow old in the home where one raised children or in another non-institutional setting in the community. During a lifetime, people develop connections to place and form relationships with neighbors, doctors, hairdressers and shopkeepers. They become intimately familiar with the route to downtown, the rhythm of summer concerts at the band shell park, the best places to get a coveted burger and personalized greeting. These associations, of value to both the individual and the community, cannot be quickly or easily replicated in a new environment. In essence, they can play a pivotal role in successful aging.”

A group of Georgia Institute of technology researchers conducted a comprehensive study of how aging affects one’s ability to perform home maintenance tasks. This study explored the issues that older adults have with maintaining their home and issues that they might foresee in performing those tasks in the future. The researchers also investigated the services, products, technologies, and remodeling options older adults considered or used that could help them.

There were 44 participants between the ages of 66 and 85 and they conducted 11 group interview sessions. They were asked to fill out a Background Questionnaire and Technology Experience Questionnaire at home and return them to the experimenter at the time of the interview.

From the interview responses, the researchers developed a list of the most difficult home maintenance activities. These included cleaning, outdoor, home upkeep, repair, indoor update/remodel, movement within the home (specific to performing maintenance tasks), and other.  The vast majority of the commentary related to these difficult categories.

The total number of comments made by participants that were related to difficult home maintenance tasks was 316; nearly 70% were cleaning-related or outdoor-related. Difficult tasks categorized as cleaning included vacuuming, tidying, changing bed linens, washing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning the toilet, taking out the garbage, and general cleaning. Outdoor tasks included mowing the lawn, painting the outside of the home, cleaning the gutters, or general outdoor tasks.

An additional 16% of the difficult tasks mentioned were categorized as home upkeep. This category of tasks included HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) maintenance (e.g., changing or replacing the furnace filter), pest control, replacing light bulbs, roof replacement, and maintenance of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

The study concludes that:

“These results present opportunities for interventions that can help older adults remain independent in their homes longer. By understanding the nature of home maintenance problems older adults encounter while aging in place, as well as their solutions for managing difficult home maintenance tasks, interventions and redesign efforts can be more effective and address the areas of greatest need. To that end, home service providers, technology developers, home designers, and senior agencies can enable aging in place.”

Home warranty companies provide home services that can address several important aspects of safely aging in place:

Proactive attention to a problem – a person with a plan is more apt to call for service on a small problem before the issue becomes worse, and potentially dangerous. Once on-site contractors can check other systems to ensure there are no additional issues and if any are discovered they can be fixed immediately.

Expeditious response – while it may take days for a contractor from the phone book to arrive, a home protection plan company has a defined and short response time

Careful screening/vetting – home protection plans provide consumers access to fully-vetted, licensed and insured local contractors.  This dramatically reduces the risk related to allowing a stranger into one’s home, particularly for elderly people living alone.

The National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program (SLWP), administered by USP, a HomeServe company, was conceived in partnership with the National League of Cities to educate property owners about their service line responsibilities and to help residents avoid the out-of-pocket expense for unanticipated and potentially costly service line repairs and replacements. The NLC SLWP can bring home repair programs backed by world class service to your residents. Learn more about how a partnership can benefit your municipality at http://www.utilitysp.net.


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World Class Contractors – Key to an Exceptional Customer Experience

The National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program (SLWP), administered by USP, a HomeServe company, was conceived in partnership with the National League of Cities to educate property owners about their service line responsibilities and to help residents avoid the out-of-pocket expense for unanticipated and potentially costly service line repairs and replacements.

One of the most important benefits of the NLC SLWP is access to our exceptional local contractor network whenever an emergency arises. While it can take days for a contractor from the phone book to arrive, a Program customer receives a call back from a qualified, fully-vetted, licensed and insured contractor within one hour to agree upon a convenient time for the contractor to arrive at their home to execute the repair.  The customer also receives an email/text verification of who is coming (including a picture of the technician).

HomeServe assists homeowners with over 450,000 emergency repair jobs each year, covering plumbing, HVAC, electrical and gas. To accomplish this, we have a mix of both directly employed service technicians and a network of over 1,000 contractors across the country to meet the demands of our 3 million customers. It is therefore our job to take the customer’s call, identify the nature of their problem, confirm coverage and deploy the job to a HomeServe technician or network contractor as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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Hear from our Director, Repair Management about our philosophy for servicing customers with repair emergencies.

Rigorous vetting process ensures quality and protects consumers

The NLC SLWP is very selective when recruiting contractors to be part of its network. In fact, less than 10% of all contractors researched and interviewed are actually selected to become network contractors. The first step in the process involves researching contractors that meet specific criteria, including: A BBB rating of A or higher; positive feedback of 90% or better by previous customers; and the ability to provide 24/7 emergency service.

Once a contractor meets our strict research criteria, a formal interview is conducted to determine if they have the expertise and equipment to perform the type of work that is required and to ensure they meet our contractor compliance requirements, including:

  • Valid and active licensing, bonding and liability, workers compensation and motor vehicle insurance
  • Certification by the contractor that their employees are legally able to work in the U.S.
  • Drug screening and state background checks
  • References from previous jobs they have completed for residential customers
  • Willingness to sign an agreement with HomeServe that stipulates performance standards, code of conduct and more

Having access to a network of fully-vetted, licensed contractors can protect consumers from potentially expensive problems.  According to the Better Business Bureau there are many financial risks of using unlicensed contractors including:

  • Quality – Acquiring a license ensures at least a minimal level of competence in that field.
  • Property values – Unlicensed contractors may fail to obtain permits which can impact the value of the property and failing to disclose information could lead to liability of the seller. In addition, since an unlicensed contractor rarely has liability insurance or a bond, if any work needs to be re-done, the burden falls on the homeowner.
  • Injury – If the contractor does not carry workers compensation insurance, the homeowner who hires that contractor becomes the “employer”, and then is responsible for injuries occurring on the property.
  • Damage to third parties – If a contractor is unlicensed and causes damage to a neighboring property or person, the homeowner may be held responsible for the contractor’s actions.

 

Technology increases efficiency and enhances the experience

The NLC SLWP utilizes a mobile field service management platform which enables contractors and their technicians easily accept jobs, schedule them with the customer and provide real-time status updates so that our Operations team can monitor progress from our Command Center. The application also alerts the customer each step of the way through SMS text messaging.

For example, when the job is scheduled, the customer receives a text message with the appointment date and time which can be saved to the calendar on their smart phone. When the technician is on their way to the customer’s home, they can simply press the “On My Way” button which sends a text to the customer with a link to a web site where the location of the technician and their estimated time of arrival can be tracked. The customer can also call the technician or text them if there is something they may need to know before getting on site.

After completing the job, the technician can simply click “Appointment Complete” which sends another text message to the customer to complete a one question survey on the technician’s performance. The results of implementing this mobile solution have been significant. Almost 80% of all jobs are now routing through the platform which has reduced the time to deploy a job by almost 20 seconds, both improving the customer experience and saving over $300k annually in agent handle time

Customers are also much happier which has been clearly seen in their survey scores and written feedback. We are pleased that this industry leading solution has revolutionized the home emergency repair experience in a way that matches the ever-increasing expectations of our customers.

The NLC SLWP can bring home repair programs backed by world-class service to your residents. Learn more about how a partnership can benefit your municipality at http://www.utilitysp.net.


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Getting the Lead Out: Utilities and Homeowners Must Both Have Skin in the Game to Protect Public Safety

June is National Safety Month, a time when we should consider how to promote safety in our homes and workplaces.  There have been many articles and stories in the news covering the lead issue, here we present a few highlights along with some stories from cities who are taking action.

According to the EPA, approximately 10 million US homes and buildings utilize service lines containing lead. Cities approach the situation in a variety of ways, but private-side water service lines and interior plumbing fixtures are a significant part of the problem. And those are the homeowner’s responsibility.

The City of Flint, Michigan has certainly drawn significant attention to the issue of lead in drinking water.  The Flint lead problem arose from the City’s money-saving measure of utilizing the Flint River as a water source instead of the Detroit water supply, which exposed all who drank the water from April 2014 to October 2015 to dangerous levels of lead. However, aside from Flint, lead in drinking water is a problem throughout the United States.

Potential health issues

According to the Mayo Clinic, lead can build up in the body over a series of months or years, eventually becoming toxic. Even trace amounts of lead can be dangerous to health. Children under 6 years of age are the most vulnerable because they are still developing critical brain and bodily functions. Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Learning issues
  • Developmental delays
  • Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Vomiting
  • Hearing loss
  • Slowed growth
  • Anemia

In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

According to the EPA, “pregnant women are also at risk because lead is stored along with calcium in bones. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is particularly true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also cross the placental barrier exposing the fetus the lead.  This can result in serious effects to the mother and her developing fetus, including reduced fetal growth and premature birth.”

Because of its danger to children, lead is a growing concern in school drinking water.  According to Simple Water, “testing of water in public schools all across the nation are revealing unhealthy lead levels, as a result of corrosion due to aging infrastructure. Old lead service pipes, fixtures, and solder can undergo chemical reactions with acidic or low-mineral level water.” This reaction results in lead dissolving and entering the drinking water supply.

The State of California recently announced that public schools would have new resources available for testing water fountains for lead and other harmful water contaminants. Additionally, data obtained from the EPA by CNBC reveals that only nine states currently report lead levels that don’t violate drinking water standards (Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas). Within the last three years, a total of 41 states had ALEs (Action Level Exceedances) of lead, meaning these states possess levels that violate drinking water standards.

The EPA continues to be focused on reducing lead exposure for children.  According to Thomas Burke, Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, “EPA is taking a coordinated, public health approach to dealing with lead so we can continue our progress in reducing lead exposures. This approach outlines a common set of public health principles, listed below, that will guide the Agency’s work related to lead:

  • There is no known threshold for the effects of lead.
  • The best way to reduce a child’s exposure to lead is to address all potential sources of exposure.
  • Reducing and minimizing sources of lead exposure is a long-term goal.
  • Children’s vulnerability to lead exposure through any source varies with their age.
  • When evaluating new actions, EPA uses a common set of science-based analytical tools to measure the impacts on children’s and adults’ blood lead levels and health.
  • While the public health goal is to eliminate exposure, national sampling of blood lead levels helps to track progress and identify children and communities at highest risk for effects.”

Regulation

The EPA’s 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act specifies maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) for drinking water contaminants. The MCLG designates the maximum allowable contaminant level before a negative health effect becomes likely. Lead’s MCLG is zero.

More recent legislation, the Lead and Copper Rule, became effective on December 7, 1992. This rule can trigger treatment requirements when lead and/or copper in drinking water exceed an “Action Level” of 15 ug/L (ppb) for lead. All community and non-transient non-community water systems are required to sample for lead and copper.

Communications from utility to consumers is crucial

Water utilities are facing a new communications challenge related to lead in drinking water. According to an AWWA publication, “in the near future, utilities may be encouraged and even required to increase their communications efforts to better protect their customers from lead exposure at the tap.”

AWWA hosted an event during Drinking Water Week on May 3, 2016 in Washington DC, where more than 100 water utility leaders from throughout the United States and Canada shared strategies for removing the lead service lines that connect millions of older homes to water mains. Water leaders discussed how a collaborative approach among utilities, customers, government and other stakeholders is key to replacement plans. Many utilities shared strategies such as those from Cincinnati Water Works and Boston Water.

The Cincinnati Water Works has expanded its outreach on lead, including the addition of a new lead website, a lead hotline, social media outreach, direct letters to more than 20,000 customers, a speaker’s bureau and the distribution of pitcher filters to homes thought to be at higher risk. Utility data show about 17 percent of Cincinnati’s service lines that lead to homes are made of lead. It was a popular building material when early systems were constructed.

Boston Water has an online database that allows homeowners to search by address to determine if their property has a lead service line. Boston Water also offers a credit of up to $2,000 ad interest-free loans to assist homeowners interested in remove the portion of lead pipe on private property.

Lead in household water supply

Corrosion of lead-containing household plumbing is the main cause of lead in drinking water. Homeowners are responsible for the water distribution lines on their property as well as any interior plumbing fixtures.  Sources of lead can include lead service lines or goosenecks on these lines, lead solder on copper pipes and brass faucets and plumbing fixtures.  Exposure can be reduced by:

  • Testing water from the tap with certified lab kits
  • Running water from the tap for two minutes to flush lead sediments from water
  • Removing any lead fixtures and determining if there is a lead service line leading to the home

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe Company, is a leading provider of utility and city-sponsored home repair solutions. For more than a decade, we have been protecting homeowners against the expense and inconvenience of water, sewer, electrical, heating, cooling and other home emergencies by providing affordable coverage, and a quality service. We are a Better Business Bureau Accredited Business – serving more than three million homeowners in North America. Our customer focus and best-in-class repair plans drive positive brand attribution to our numerous municipal, utility and association partners. Contact us to learn more about how a partnership can benefit your city.

 

Sources:

http://www.simplewater.us/simplewater-blog/2017/2/1/lead-in-public-school-water

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/home/ovc-20275050

https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead

https://www.epa.gov/lead/public-health-approach-addressing-lead

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/01/19/michigan-flint-water-contamination/78996052/

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/24/americas-water-crisis-goes-beyond-flint-michigan.html

http://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/files/resources/publicaffairs/pdfs/FINALeadServiceLineCommGuide.pdf

https://www.awwa.org/resources-tools/water-knowledge/lead.aspx


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Follansbee, WV – And Many Other Cities in the U.S.

The story of Follansbee begins in 1699 with French explorers who claimed the Ohio River valley and developed trade with many native tribes, including the Mingo IndiaFollansbeens who occupied a small village known as the “Old Mingo Bottom” located on the land where Follansbee is today. A 1920 Herald Star article, reporting on the annual city Jubilee, described Follansbee as “The Little Town That Does Big Things.”

This “little town”, like many older cities and towns in the U.S., struggles with a big problem – aging infrastructure. A recent report in the news indicated that Follansbee, West Virginia; a city of about 2,900, has over 500 water main breaks every year. You may be surprised to learn that this is by no means an experience isolated to Follansbee.

According to watermainbreaksclock.com, every day, 850 water main breaks occur in North America at a total annual repair cost of over $3 billion. Corrosion, leaks and breaks in old-technology pipe materials are often the culprit. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been giving the U.S. infrastructure a failing grade for some time now, with its most recent assessment garnering a lackluster D+. The report goes on to state what many City officials already know, “especially in the country’s older cities, much of the drinking water infrastructure is old and in need of replacement. Failures in drinking water infrastructure can result in water disruptions, impediments to emergency response, and damage to other types of infrastructure.”

The ASCE’s State report card for West Virginia lists the 20 year dollar amount at $1billion in needed investment to the State’s water systems. And the West Virginia Business and Industry Council acknowledges the “need for investment in water and wastewater infrastructure continues to far outpace the amount of funding that is available at all levels of government.”

While State and Federal funding will attempt to address primary infrastructure, private water and sewer lines – those on resident’s properties – are subjected to the same elements that cause city lines to fail. When these lines break or leak, they can be very expensive to repair – as much as $3,000 or more. And most Americans don’t have that kind of savings in the bank – so an unexpected service line repair cost can be hard on their budgets.

That’s why cities such as Follansbee, West Virginia, along with 30 other cities in West Virginia and over 400 other cities across North America, decided to introduce the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program to their residents. The program, offered at no cost to the city, educates residents about their service line responsibilities while providing an affordable solution to cover the potential cost of repairs.

“It made sense to bring this program to our community,” said John DeStefano, City Manager. “It raises awareness about homeowner responsibility for private service lines and provides them with a solution if they want to participate.”

Still, some city officials wonder why they should be in the business of working with a private company. “When faced with a failed water or sewer service line, few citizens have the desire or experience to deal with a contractor for what might be a very large expense,” said Jim Hunt, Past President of the NLC and current advisor to the NLC Program.  “It makes sense for the city to assist by insuring that the contractor is licensed and insured and gets the job done right.”

“We wanted to make sure that our citizens had access to a reputable provider, “said John DeStefano, City Manager. “It has been well-received in our community”.


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CEO’s Corner

If you have ever received a piece of mail, or an email, describing the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program, you have likely read about the exceptionally high customer satisfaction rating we maintain. From a city official’s perspective, that’s important, because you have entrusted us, as administrators of the Program, with your brand. It is our responsibility to exercise proper stewardship over the use of your city’s name to ensure it continues to convey trust to your residents.

That is one of the reasons why we are obsessed with delivering exceptional customer service. Each month, all of our senior managers, including me, meet to make sure we are listening to the voice of the customer, to ensure that our service delivery is well aligned with our customer and brand promise: to build peace of mind within each of our partner communities by freeing customers, your residents, from the worry that comes with needed service line repairs.

But with thousands of calls coming in, we needed to invest in cutting-edge technology to make sure we could hear clearly. So, we implemented a voice analytics software that provides the ability to analyze speech by measuring not just words, but other clues that shed light on the quality of the customer experience. Criteria such as silence, tone and volume are analyzed by the software alongside key words and phrases. This has revolutionized the process of quality assurance, rather than being concerned over the length of the call, we have now created a customer experience scorecard that instead is looking for empathy, tone and professionalism, emphasizing attention to customer needs.

To complement the insight provided by call analytics, we also implemented the automated Customer Survey application. This interactive web-based solution provides real-time feedback that gives our team actionable insight into all areas of the business. This is another way we keep a finger on the pulse of our customer and your resident’s feedback on the program.

One of our core values is to put the customer at the heart of everything we do, and because of that, we have a 98% customer satisfaction rating. But this is about more than numbers or a plaque hanging on the wall, this is something we live and breathe across our business every single day, and is part of our commitment to you, our city partners, and to the NLC.

Tom Rusin

 


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Looking Back at 2016

2016 saw tremendous and exciting activity for the NLC Service Line Warranty Program! We welcomed 71 new city partners in the U.S., bringing our total to over 400 across North America. We now serve nearly 11 million municipal households, and performed a repair or replacement every 76 seconds nationwide last year.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program is pleased to serve cities of all sizes, from Phoenix, AZ, a partner since 2012 with more than half a million households to Vergas, Minnesota, one of our newest partners, with 152 households.

Did you know? 

A survey of customers of the NLC Service Line Warranty Program said they feel better prepared for a water or sewer line emergency:

  • More than 70% said they could not afford a water or sewer line repair without the program
  • More than 90% said they have trust in the program because of the partnership with their city

City leaders agree:

Steven Wright, Chief Information Officer, City of Mesa, Arizona

“We have worked with SLWA for three years and have found the company to be responsive and focused on providing quality services to our residents.”

Todd Gloria, City Councilman, City of San Diego, California

“The city has fully vetted this organization and this program and we’ve conducted due diligence. SLWA’s program is endorsed by the National League of Cities, multiple state municipal leagues and hundreds of municipalities. SLWA’s been a member of the BBB since 2003 and they are very proud of their exemplary record.”

We hope you will join us!

Read more city and resident testimonials and see who else is participating.