Making the intelligent choice
Compulsory metering looks likely to become a reality in areas of serious water stress. David Ballard analyses the implications for water companies and the consumer, and argues that basic mechanical meters could prove a false economy.
Launching the initiative, environment minister Phil Woolas said: "Metering saves water - around 10% per household - and it seems right to me that in seriously water-stressed areas the costs and benefits of compulsory metering are given consideration alongside other options."
The minister added that consumers' views on how the plans are likely to affect them would be taken into account. But the views of these consumers will in no small part depend on the credibility of the data supplied, which may entail lifting the lid of Pandora's Box.
Of all water meters installed in the UK, some 80% are positioned at the boundary with the consumer's property. Measurement from this point therefore includes both legitimate usage and any leakage from the customer's supply pipe. And the consumer is paying for this leakage.
Conventional wisdom is that leakage from supply pipes is experienced by just 0.5% to 1% of households, figures based on water company estimates. Yet recent trials by Severn Trent Services (STS) of its SmartMeter, which can detect supply side leaks, have shown that these figures could be massively in error with up to 8% of consumers experiencing significant supply side leakage.
That is a shocking eight to 16 times more households who are affected.
Ofwat's own report into security of supply, leakage and the efficient use of water
is again based on figures supplied by the water companies. It indicates that leakage accounts for some 25% of all the water in the network, and of this, about 33% is attributable to supply pipe leakage.
Ofwat notes that statistically this equates to an average loss of some 41l per household per day. Yet if, as we are led to believe, the reality is that only 0.5% to 1% of households are really accounting for 33% of all leakage, they would probably be living in boats rather than houses.
Water companies claim that they already have adequate strategies such as night time and cul-de-sac monitoring in place to detect supply pipe leakage. But these are too random and anyway only represent a one-off test.
Gross leaks are easily detectable, for example, when a consumer instigates an investigation after a very large increase in a water bill is noticed. Also, water companies can check for large-scale illegitimate flow when installing a new meter.
But the STS trials also indicate that leaks detected by these crude means may be picking up less than one in eight leaks, leaving the vast majority of householders in ignorance - many will receive bills inflated by more than 100%, due to the registration of water leaked from supply pipes.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the arrival of new leak-detecting metering technology is good news, but consider the implications of having knowledge of such leakage.
In the UK, it is the consumer not the water company that is responsible for fixing leaks in supply pipes. Indeed, under Section 75 of the Water Industry Act 1991, water companies can insist that such leaks are fixed within seven days, and have statutory powers to enforce this with the right to turn off the supply if the leak is not repaired.
Water companies do assist some customers with supply pipe repairs. Yet, according to Ofwat, the number of subsidised supply pipe repairs is declining, leaving many consumers to finance expensive repairs themselves.
Concessionary leak repair schemes for consumers with known supply pipe leaks are anyway extremely limited in scope. Some offer a one-off free-fix service subject to very limited excavation work. Others offer a contribution, typically of £100 towards the cost of repair.
Yet both these strategies are pitifully inadequate, and in many cases consumers with long supply pipe runs or service pipes under expensive driveways could be left paying repair and reinstatement costs of many thousands of pounds.
In this context, even the most conservation-minded consumer may think twice before electing to have a water meter installed. And, likewise, where a meter is installed, a cynic might observe that water companies might not be hungry to discover these leaks, as they are being paid for the water anyway.
Consider also the economic and social implications of water companies serving Section 75 notices on the elderly, infirm or those who simply cannot afford to pay - not to mention the political fallout. Also, in the case of council-owned property, would we see rises in taxation levied to foot the bill?
In the power sector, to minimise barriers to the take-up of smart meters, Ofgem has proposed an industry-wide group to agree minimum standards for meters.
Likewise, in developing its new SmartMeter, STS worked with seven UK water companies who formed a consortium to identify the ideal specification for the meter.
This included price, physical design, performance, data output and collection method.
Among the criteria was the important need to assist in water saving through effective leak management and, in particular, the ability to differentiate between leakage and legitimate use to assist in billing and prioritisation of supply pipe leak repairs.
Two years of development down the road, and Severn Trent Metering Services (STMS) has delivered a meter that fully meets all the criteria set.
In addition to leakage data - location, rate, duration and date - the detailed specification which was developed included the need for variable tariff applications, an effective automatic meter-reading system including real-time data transmission, flexible data collection methodology to allow migration between different reading technologies and peak-week demand data.
Furthermore, all of this has been delivered at a competitive and affordable price, even by comparison with conventional meters.
For example, STMS can supply a SmartMeter with a 20-year battery life for around £30. Compare this with the basic mechanical water meter, which costs around £15 but typically lasts only ten years, and the term "false economy" comes to mind.
As record-breaking rainfall in the UK impacts on the lives of tens of thousands, we could be forgiven for thinking that the water shortage has gone away.
Yet this is simply underlining the reality of climate change and the importance
of achieving a long-term sustainable water supply.
It is well recognised that intelligent water meters will play a vital role in this.
But, as the meter installation programme ramps up, the industry will need to retain the support of the public.
This may only be possible by coming clean and providing consumers with credible data, which may entail facing some difficult issues.
David Ballard is managing director of DBA Corporate Communications.
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