Water Loss: An Invisible Problem for Utilities and Their Customers

By: Bill Eller

During this Water Awareness Month, we are looking at ways to manage water loss, especially given the age of our country’s infrastructure and the billions of gallons of water that is lost beneath our streets each year.

Many water utility managers are familiar with winter water line breaks, when the cold makes pipes brittle and the soil around them contracts, but there are more and more breaks during warmer weather – and many of those breaks occur because the pipes are long past their usable lifespan.

Water managers are aware of the age of their water infrastructure and the need for repair or replacement, but the money to repair these critical infrastructure systems is hard to come by. Federal funding, once a healthy source of infrastructure funding, has become nearly nonexistent – most federal funding now flows through state revolving fund loans, which must be repaid or come with matching funds strings attached. Additionally, many utilities are undercharging their customers, either because those customers can’t afford a rate increase or there is no political will to institute a rate increase.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that it will cost $1 trillion to maintain current infrastructure and expand to meet anticipated demand and gave the country’s water infrastructure a D grade, citing aging infrastructure and underinvestment.

Lost water is a big problem – utilities cannot recoup the costs of treating water that never makes it to the meter, let alone beyond. Many utilities haven’t undergone an audit to determine just how much water they are losing, but it could be as high as 50 percent of all water treated.

American water utilities lose seven billion gallons of treated potable water daily, which adds up to 1.7 trillion a year. Part of the problem is the unprecedented number of water main breaks each year – an estimated 240,000 water mains across the country break annually.

There are three questions you want to ask about water loss: How much is being lost? Where is it occurring? Why is it being lost? Once you have the answers to these questions, you can formulate a strategy to address water loss.

Apparent losses through unmetered usage, such as the use of hydrants to fight fires or flush lines, is an unavoidable and accepted part of the business of water utilities. Then there are apparent losses through data handling errors and metering inaccuracies. A data audit can look to compare authorized and unbilled consumption, billed consumption and unauthorized and unbilled consumption.

Then there is unauthorized usage, or theft. 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. Residential theft can be prevented by locking meter housing or varying the meter reading schedule. Additionally, a usage audit can show if a home or business has an unexplained drop in water usage.

An American Water Works Association assessment 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 utility’s average real loss is 16 percent, but most utilities can reduce that by two-thirds with the proper measures. Water loss can negatively impact customer satisfaction because it only takes a loss of 20 percent to impact water pressure throughout your system.

A water audit, including physical inspections, flow analysis and leak detection tools, can determine where these real losses are originating from and which ones are in greatest need of repair. Utilities also can cross reference billing and usage data with information on historical breaks and leaks, line age and composition and areas of heavy usage.

The great majority of hidden leaks are found in customer service lines – and they are often not repaired in a timely or efficient manner. Even when a leak is caught, it can take a long time to fix – an average of four to five weeks, while the system continues to lose potable water. 

The National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program by HomeServe offers an optional service line repair plan that allows your customers to quickly repair any damaged water service lines that can be draining water from your system while protecting them from the financial shock of the repair. With the Program, your customers won’t shy away from repairs because they don’t have the funding to undertake them, meaning less water loss for your utility. HomeServe also offers the ServLine Leak Protection Program that can protect the utility and all customers from an unexpected high water bill.

To find out more about how we can help you eliminate service line leaks, contact us.

Join our expert roundtable at 3 p.m. EST April 27 as they discuss how the COVID-19 epidemic has impacted water utilities and poses solutions to improve public and private infrastructure, recover lost revenue, educate and protect homeowners and assist disadvantaged citizens in our community. 

 

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