Communication is everything
Folkestone and Dover Water Services has completed a pilot project for its planned compulsory water-metering programme - the first such scheme in the UK. Dean Stiles reports.
The company plans to steadily increase the number of meters used on a phased basis, with 90% of homes on a metered supply by 2015. At present, about half of Folkestone and Dover Water Services 69,000 households are metered.
The programme for compulsory metering follows approval, in March last year, by Defra for an application from Folkestone and Dover Water Services for Water Scarcity Status for the company's operating area. This was the first such application to be granted.
In July 2005, Folkestone and Dover Water Services was the first company to apply and receive Water Scarcity Status under the Water Industry (Prescribed Conditions) Regulations 1999. These regulations, which came into force in April 2000, allow water companies to make a case to the Secretary of State to have their areas designated areas of water scarcity.
In these areas, they are permitted to meter any property, setting aside in such areas household customers' right to remain on an unmeasured basis of charging in their current homes while using water for normal household purposes.
Granting water scarcity status acknowledges the challenges faced by Folkestone and Dover Water Services, which operates in one of the driest parts of the UK.
Folkestone and Dover Water Services is a water-only company. It supplies the towns of Folkestone and Dover, together with surrounding rural areas including Romney Marsh and Dungeness. It provides 50 million litres daily to a population of about 160,000.
Locally, there are no major surface water sources, rivers or major reservoirs, to draw from, so the company is entirely reliant on water stored underground in chalk and gravel aquifers. Current levels in sources are at or around long-term average levels.
Folkestone and Dover Water Services, part of the Veolia Group, will face increasing difficulty over the next ten years matching its limited water resources to the growing amount of water used. This will be compounded by planned housing expansion outlined in government proposals.
The company believes that metering will have an important role to play in helping to reduce this demand as well as sending a signal about the benefits of water saving to domestic customers.
David Walton, managing director, of Folkestone and Dover Water Services says: "We are very pleased with the decision to approve formal Water Scarcity Status. In order to ensure a long-term sustainable water supply, we need to team water conservation with major capital investment in new sources and infrastructure.
"One of the main advantages that Water Scarcity Status will bring is to allow the company to achieve its target of having 90% of customers metered by 2015, through the introduction of compulsory metering on a phased basis," he says.
About half of the company's domestic customers are already metered. "We have seen that metered customers reduce their non-essential use of water by around 10-15%. This, over time, allows major savings in water to be made, and ensures that a scarce resource is used carefully," Walton adds.
The company, with a total workforce of just under 80, plans to carry out installation work itself. During the pilot in Lydd, all but about 10% of residential properties had meters installed. The exceptions were properties where access was technically difficult. The supply area has a typically broad range of housing types in rural and urban areas.
The company expects a similar percentage of properties across the entire supply area where meter installation is impractical. The next phase of compulsory metering is planned for the Hythe and Saltwood areas, with work scheduled to begin in the late spring and summer of this year.
The average cost per installation during the pilot was less than £200, although meter location can have a significant effect on the individual installation cost, a company spokesman said.
Properties are not metered when this is not technically feasible - for example, pipes inaccessible under an extensive layer of concrete. Folkestone & Dover Water has already successfully promoted the use of meters. Nearly half of its domestic customers have a metered supply, which is above average for the UK.
In its promotional material for domestic customers, the company emphasises that many households have found that their water bills have reduced. This general information, distributed as part of an ongoing campaign, will be bolstered by more specific information about water metering in each area.
There has been little opposition locally to the programme. Financially vulnerable customers can take advantage of a special tariff. "Making sure that vulnerable customers have the advice they need is a priority for us. And we are working with local voluntary and customer representative groups to provide support," says Walton.
The pilot scheme has allowed Folkestone and Dover Water Services to assess the impact of meter installation, evaluate water savings and ensure that the most effective installation procedures are followed. According to Walton, good communication with customers is a "priority".
The company found it useful to trial its information packs, and information offered on water savings, during the pilot, according to a spokesman.
No significant changes in its approach are planned following the trial. "Systems are working well, and we are ensuring that customers have a full range of information on metering and water saving," the spokemean says.
The compulsory metering programme, with its expected 10% reduction in consumption, is not the sole means to tackle growing demand for water.
In its £27M investment programme for 2005 to 2010, Folkestone and Dover Water Services has built 20km of strategic trunk main. And it has begun work to develop a new water source at Buckland Mill. The new mains created a water grid for the area that allows greater flexibility in operations and better security of supply.
"Buckland Mill will be able to supply up to 6Ml/day, so increasing resources and improving resilience," says the company spokesman.
"At the same time, we will be ensuring that water is conserved by the company itself in all of its operations. We have consistently met or exceeded the leakage targets set by regulators, and will further reduce leakage," he adds.
Walton says: "We will also be continuing with a mains replacement and renovation programme."
Folkestone and Dover Water Services' leakage rate for 2005/2006 was 8.04Ml/day, down from 8.45Ml/day in 2001/2002. Its Ofwat target for 2005/2006 was 8.4Ml/day.