Utility Service Partners, Inc.

Sharing industry news, best practices and program highlights from experts in the field.


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The NLC Service Line Warranty Program Helps a Young Couple with a Major Repair

Adam and Jennifer F. loved the first home they bought together, a historic 100 year old house in a quiet Wichita neighborhood – but they didn’t love the sewer line problems that came with it.

The couple bought the home knowing that the sewer line would need attention, and Adam and a friend rented equipment and spent hours cleaning out the line. The couple believed that would keep the problem from worsening until they were able to implement a more permeant fix.

However, within two years, the couple noticed they once again were experiencing drainage problems.

“I thought, ‘I just fixed that,’” Adam said. “I didn’t think it had been long enough to have another problem.”

But it was – one of the features of the backyard the couple loved was an enormous tree, easily as old as their home, but the sewer line passed beneath it. The tree’s roots sought out the warmth the line emitted, especially during the colder months. In addition, the line was an old clay pipe and offered little resistance to the encroaching roots.

To compound the problem, at some point between the house initially being built and Adam and Jennifer purchasing it, an outbuilding had been erected at the rear of the property, directly over the sewer line. The line would have to be replaced using an auger to dig beneath the outbuilding without damaging the foundation or completely re-routed to avoid the tree and the building.

The cost would be thousands of dollars – an expense the young couple simply could not afford. Fortunately, Adam had assisted a local church, and the pastor put him in contact with Sunflower Services.

Sunflower recommended replacing the clay pipe with sturdier, more resistant PVC and rerouting it to avoid the tree and outbuilding to prevent continuing root encroachment and make the line more accessible if it should ever need repair in the future. The problem was the $7,000 price tag, representing a significant portion of their annual income.

Sunflower Services employees knew just what to do and reached out to contacts at Utility Service Partners to see if the couple could have their job covered through the company’s charitable program. Utility Service Partners, a leading home warranty company providing plumbing and electrical warranties throughout the U.S. and Canada, agreed to cover the cost of the repair.

Utility Service Partners also offers low-cost water and sewer service line warranties through the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program in partnership with municipalities and utilities. The program also has been endorsed by several state leagues, including the Kansas League of Cities.

As for Adam and Jennifer, everything is back to normal.

“It’s draining just fine now,” Adam said.


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CitiesSpeaks Focuses on How P3s Can Benefit Your Community

As the Trump administration encourages the use of public-private partnerships in addressing infrastructure issues, you may question whether a P3 is the right choice for your community. The National League of Cities’ CitiesSpeak explores three ways P3 can benefit communities – by stretching the budget, allowing flexibility and shortening project timelines, and providing access to innovation not otherwise available. P3s can allow a municipality to share the risk and responsibility while retaining ownership of infrastructure assets.


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Resiliency in Action

For the past three years, the National League of Cities (NLC), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have joined efforts to host the Resilient Cities Summit, providing a forum for cities to discuss how they can be better prepared for climate risk and build for a more resilient future.

Resiliency—we know what the word means, right? But resilient cities? According to the American Planning Association (APA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), ULI, and a number of other organizations that focus on the built environment:

The definition of resilience is “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”1

What kinds of adverse events? And how does a city plan to recover?

“As weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, disruptions and stressors become a common concern among city officials and residents alike.”

In her keynote address to the 2016 Resilient Cities Summit, Katherine Hammack, Former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment, put it this way: “a resilient city or installation provides reliable communication and mobility; ensures continuity of critical resources; and provides and enhances man-made and natural resources.”1

What does that look like in action? Let’s visit one of our NLC Service Line Warranty Program Partners, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an idea. The City of Tulsa was selected as one of one hundred cities to be part of 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation (100RC), an organization dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient, in 2014.2

In December 2016, Mayor G.T. Bynum appointed DeVon Douglass to become the city’s new Chief Resilience Officer. That selection follows Tulsa’s ongoing commitment to resiliency. According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, the discovery of oil in 1901 set in motion events that would tie Tulsa’s future fortunes to the oil industry for many succeeding decades. Over time, however, Tulsa diversified to include telecommunications, finance, and aviation. 100 Resilient Cities notes, “The city has seen significant economic growth, in part due to concerted urban revitalization plans.”2

Given its position in “Tornado Alley,” one area in which Tulsa needs a plan for resiliency is in establishing reliable emergency communications that reach all residents when weather emergencies arise. “Potentially deadly tornadoes and high wind events regularly harm structures and power lines, and do significant financial damage. The city has responded to high flood risks by creating one of the top floodplain management plans in the country, with a particular focus on urban planning and relocation.”2

That is in keeping with Tulsa’s history, too. CRO DeVon Douglass noted as much when she committed to “…building upon a foundation…in disaster resilience.”2

“Tulsa may seem an unlikely spokes-city for flood control, but it is a leader in storm-water management design in the United States,” writes Olivia Stinson, 100RC Associate Director of City Relationships.3 

Catastrophic flooding of waterways such as Mingo Creek in the 1970s and ‘80s led the city to use local, State and Federal resources to “design and build a comprehensive storm-water management system—a dramatic change in the way Tulsa managed its land and infrastructure.” Building on these relationships and the funding made available, the city acquired over 900 private homes and businesses located in flood-prone areas and turned them into green spaces that function as detention ponds and parks, soccer fields and walking paths. The result is “a system that is visually appealing, environmentally sustainable, and perhaps most importantly, provides other benefits in the absence of flooding.” For example, as 100 Resilient Cities reports, Tulsa Centennial Park serves as valuable public space most of the year and provides essential flood water detention when it rains.

According to a case study published by Naturally Resilient Communities, “the construction of this network of landscaped buffers and detention basins provided Tulsa with the critical green space needed to manage flooding during major storms. Since the project’s creation, local property owners and businesses have not had any major property losses due to flooding. And by allowing the city to plan around flooding hazard areas, the plan has reduced any negative economic impacts that flooding in the area could cause, which has led to social and community benefits as well. Because of its successful flood protection approach, Tulsa boasts one of the nation’s best flood insurance policies. Residents have received up to a 35 percent discount from their premiums that are adjusted to reflect their properties’ reduced flood risk.”

As 100 Resilient Cities concludes, “embracing the natural dynamism of the floodplain has made Tulsa more resilient.”

 

1  2016 Resilient Cities Summit, Solutions for Sustainable Land Use, US Green Buildings Council

2  100 Resilient Cities, Tulsa’s Resilience Challenge,   http://www.100resilientcities.org/cities/tulsa


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Q&A with Cooper Martin

Can you tell us a little bit about what the Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) at NLC is responsible for?

Our goal is to inform, support, and celebrate city-led sustainability initiatives. The SCI team educates and helps to develop the leadership skills of local elected officials in sustainable energy, water, transportation and other policies. A lot of our time is spent working directly with the officials and their staff that make up the NLC membership.

What are some of the projects in process?

Everything we do is to help cities lead on climate action. NLC helped launch the “We Are Still In” campaign for cities, businesses, universities, and other stakeholders who still uphold the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, and reinforcing that kind of leadership is the most fundamental part of the whole program.

Our two main projects are SolSmart and the Leadership in Community Resilience program. SolSmart provides recognition and assistance to local governments to develop their solar markets and provide cheaper, cleaner energy to citizens. The program covers everything from permitting, construction codes, zoning, financing, utility coordination, and consumer education and has already designated over 100 cities for their efforts.

Our Community Resilience program has established a network of 10 cities and provided them each with grants and technical support to help implement a portion of their local sustainability or climate action plan. This program has been running a little over one year and we hope to invite a new round of communities to participate in 2018.

What are some highlights/recent successes?

At the end of September we celebrated our 100th community to be designated through the SolSmart campaign. I’m confident that we’re making a real impact by reducing the cost and delay of new photovoltaic solar panel installations in communities nationwide and helping the U.S. become a leader in renewable energy.

We also had a very successful Resilient Cities Summit in July. The event is run in partnership with the Urban Land Institute and the US Green Building Council to connect mayors, builders, developers, financiers, planners, and other experts to discuss what each of these sectors needs in order to be truly sustainable in economic, environmental, and social terms.

What is the difference between sustainability and resilience? Can cities be pursuing both at the same time?

This question comes up a lot. I like to say that sustainability is primarily about reducing your impact on the environment, while resilience is about reducing the environment’s impact on you. It’s not perfect, but thinking about it this way allows decision makers to set goals and evaluate trade-offs. For example, if you’re upgrading a building to be safer in earthquake or hurricane zones, can you add some efficiency features and use utility savings to finance the project? Then, are there local policies that help with that kind of holistic approach? I think it’s absolutely necessary to pursue both at the same time because it gives you more complete information to make long-term policy or investment decisions.

What are some ways cities can get more involved/committed to sustainability?

The first thing is to get more involved with the National League of Cities. Elected officials have such a tough job to be educated in so many aspects of running a city and we’re helping make them better leaders all around. After that, sustainability is no different from any other issue. Cities can identify and reach out to local civic associations that are interested in sustainability. Ask them what their top priorities are, what the city can do, and what they can offer in support.

Cooper

Cooper Martin
Program Director,
Sustainable Cities Institute
National League of Cities


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A Message from Tom Rusin, CEO

At USP, a HomeServe Company, our focus on delivering an exceptional customer experience can only be realized with a passionate and engaged workforce.

Feedback from employees has revealed that many wish to be involved in activities that support community initiatives. So our corporate social responsibility initiatives also serve as a platform for meaningful employee engagement.  Through a company-wide charity pitch program similar to “Shark Tank,” we deliberately solicited ideas from our employees for organizations to support. This has enabled us, through a company matching program, to provide significant monetary assistance to a number of organizations that have a personal connection to them. To date, our total contributions in the charity pitch program alone have exceeded $194,000. Many of these organizations also hold events, such as 5K races, that allow groups of our employees to participate, further solidifying their connection to USP HomeServe and the initiatives we support.

As part of our corporate social responsibility program, we grant each employee a day off with pay per year to dedicate to community service.  Many departments have chosen to use the day as a team-building event, cooking meals for the homeless or cleaning up a park. Those who have participated in these activities have expressed their appreciation for giving them the gift of time to help others.

We also dedicate our resources and expertise in the home repair space to help those in need.  HomeServe Cares is an initiative to help disadvantaged homeowners in communities we serve around the country who are faced with a home repair emergency and don’t have either one of our repair service plans or the necessary funds to cover the repair costs. Additionally, in the case of severe weather events, such as this year’s devastating hurricanes, we were able to offer assistance in a number of ways.  During the aftermath of the recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas, we leveraged our greatest asset—our network of high-quality contractors across a number of trades—mobilizing them to provide service at discounted rates to customers in these affected areas, covering the contractors’ investigation costs for repairs not covered under our typical service plans. We also partnered with the Red Cross to raise funds to assist, matching all employee contributions dollar for dollar.

At USP and HomeServe we believe that participating in community service with our employees creates connections that go above and beyond titles or positions. The best part is: our customers ultimately benefit from receiving service from a company with a deeply engaged workforce.


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AMERICA’S WATER INFRASTRUCTURE CRISIS: THE SIX PILLAR SOLUTION

By James L. Good

 

Utility Service Partners

Clean water technologies (filtration and chlorination) are likely the most important public health intervention of the 20th Century.

—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Every day, we habitually turn on a faucet, draw a bath, and flush a toilet with no more thought than we give to breathing or walking. Yet over the vast span of human history that unfolded prior to 1900, these commonplace household activities would have been viewed as miraculous. In fact, water was often as much a threat to human health as an essential ingredient of life.

Before the turn of the last century, water was a primary carrier of infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. In the crowded conditions of a rapidly urbanizing America, this could mean a death sentence for city dwellers. For example, an outbreak of cholera that hit Memphis in September 1873 killed 2,000 out of the 7,000 who were infected, in a city with a population of 40,000.

It’s only been about 100 years since the advent of the chlorination of drinking water and the treatment of raw sewage, which virtually eliminated water as an acute public health threat. This also made possible and desirable the expansion of water and sewer networks, which by 1940 had been extended to 94 percent of urban households. It is no exaggeration that this mostly unknown and unheralded investment in water treatment and networks is what makes modern life as we live it possible.

Sadly, such minor miracles can no longer be taken for granted. The maintenance and improvement of our nation’s water systems[i] have been ignored for so long that we are now reaping the consequences, as these sobering statistics demonstrate:

  • 250,000 – the annual number of water main breaks
  • 7 trillion – the amount in gallons lost through these leaks
  • $2.6 billion – the estimated cost of water lost through leaks
  • $1 trillion – the amount estimated by the American Water Works Association that must be spent on drinking water systems over the next 20 years

Even the most casual followers of news and current events have heard of the lead poisoning that struck Flint, Michigan and its water supply a few years ago. A tragic event; but because of the publicity it received, the importance of addressing the presence of lead in our water systems has moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. However, in many ways, the statistics listed above are just as sobering as they point to the deteriorating status of the water systems that we cannot live without.

The magnitude of this crisis is daunting. Fixing it will not be cheap or simple. And there is no single policy, approach, or initiative that will get our nation’s water systems out of this predicament.

What will solve this problem is leadership and a plan that addresses these many challenges comprehensively. Because water systems form an integral part of the built environment and are an entrenched component of it, there are no “do overs.” Instead, getting the water systems we need will require a plan that builds on the systems we have.

The plan that follows consists of Six Pillars. It is based on lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years of building, running, improving, and thinking about water systems. The emphasis placed on them will vary over time, but they are complementary and must be pursued simultaneously for the plan to succeed. The Six Pillars are:

  1. Education – This pillar is first among equals. Before this crisis can be solved, its dimensions and consequences must be known. Continuous education of and communication to customers, policy makers, the media and other stakeholders is the essential element needed to build the water systems we need.
  2. Data – Water utilities generate terabytes of data daily. Harnessing it generates insights into more effective and efficient ways to operate and improve water infrastructure.
  3. Efficiency – The financial needs of this sector are great, and funds are limited. To close this gap, water utilities need to make the most of every dollar.
  4. Technology – The innovation in processes and systems that can benefit the water sector is unprecedented. Let’s harness them to benefit customers and disseminate innovation rapidly throughout the sector.
  5. Alternative Financing – Local utilities cannot afford to address this crisis alone. They need financial assistance from all levels of government as well as the private sector through alternative contracting approaches such as Public Private Partnerships (P3s) and concessions.
  6. Local Investment – Utilities are largely funded through customer rates. Even with third-party assistance, the cost of solving this crisis will fall primarily on the backs of local ratepayers. Let’s make sure the first five pillars are addressed before any more demands are put on utility customers.

Every participant in the water sector has an important role to play in advancing one or more of these Pillars. That includes the NLC Service Line Warranty Program, which is uniquely positioned to make an impact in each of these areas. For example, on education, the Company is sponsoring this series of articles and using its channels to communicate our nation’s water infrastructure crisis to audiences who may have little knowledge of its magnitude. Increasing the general public’s awareness of this crisis and its solutions is foundational to building a constituency that demands it be addressed.

Through a series of articles, I will be examining each of the Six Pillars, discuss their importance and how HomeServe products and services are being used by water utility customers to help solve our nation’s water infrastructure crisis.

Our civilization literally depends on it.

[i] In this article, unless the context indicates otherwise, “water” denotes both water and sewer.


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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.