Meeting the operational challenges ahead

Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions is the main contractor for Southern Water’s Universal Metering Programme, which is currently under way in the South-east of England. Colin Kelly, the company’s director of gas and water, talks through the day-to-day operational challenges of the project – and how these will impact upon future work.

The South-east is expected to face serious water stress over coming years, as projected population growth takes its toll on what is already one of the driest regions in the country. The area has already been classed as an area of serious water stress by the Government.

Metering is one of a range of actions that water companies are increasingly turning to in order to help encourage the conservation of water, alongside tackling leakage. Perhaps the most ambitious use of metering is Southern Water’s Universal Metering Programme (UMP). The UMP is a project to move 92% of the company’s customers on to water meters by 2015. Metered properties currently make up 40% of the company’s customers, meaning almost 500,000 meters will be fitted in homes across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire in the next few years.

The new meters are Automated Meter Reading (AMR) meters, which can be read by a ‘drive-by’ method, meaning Southern Water can take up to 20,000 meter readings each day. The meters also have a leak alarm which will help detect leaks on customers’ pipes and on the supply network and can hold much more information about households’ water usage.

As the contractor carrying out the installations, Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions is the first utility services provider in the UK to be involved in a meter-fitting project of this scale. This has made pre-planning and flexibility all the more crucial, as new challenges emerge and need to be dealt with quickly.

Key to the smooth running of installations is the pre-survey carried out before operatives arrive on site. This assesses various factors which may affect the installation process, the most important of which is the actual location of the stop tap for each property. In many cases this is by no means obvious or predictable, even on a road or estate of similar houses. Whilst the majority of meters can be fitted at the property boundary, there are a number of existing meters inside the property itself which require replacing.

Each of these situations can pose their own challenges. As with any project, the safety of both operatives and members of the public is the top priority and the usual streetworks measures must be taken. But the very nature of the metering programme – working in close proximity to properties and often within their boundaries – means teams must be even more conscious of safety issues. What’s more, operatives are often operating in sensitive areas such as gardens or on block paving. Consequently, even simple things – like where spoil is stacked and the length of time reinstatement takes – must be considered in much more depth to ensure minimum disruption to residents.

Helping to protect customers’ from bogus callers is also a priority, so Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions has worked with Southern Water to ensure all employees and vehicles are clearly branded with Southern Water logos and teams are clearly identifiable to the public and police.

What has been most important to bear in mind throughout this project is that the programme is universal, that means compulsory. Not only are teams working on customers’ properties, but they are doing so to install something which people may be wary of. This has therefore required not only a change in some working practices, as mentioned, but something of a cultural change. Whilst operatives are always encouraged to view themselves as ambassadors for the company, on this project this has been all the more vital as customers could be actively opposed to their presence.

Teams from Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions, Southern Water and dedicated customer service company Groundwork have worked hard to ensure this cultural change is reflected in customers’ experiences. Each customer experiences the same ‘journey’ – from initial contact to installation completion. This has helped to engage customers in the process, meaning they are aware of why the project is being undertaken and what the installation will entail. This includes information on the scarcity of water resources, advice on saving water, energy and money in the home and details about new tariffs to support customers who may struggle to pay their metered water bill.

Despite these challenges, installation rates continue to accelerate. At the start of the project, the company was installing 250 meters per week. This has been increasing steadily over the last few months as the programme gets into full swing, with installation rates now standing at 1,900 per week. This increase has occurred as teams continue to gain experience of the issues surrounding meter installations and perfect the processes which will be used going forward.

As with any large-scale project that is the first of its kind, undertaking the UMP has been a learning curve. There have been a number of key lessons learnt during the early stages of the project, and there are some areas which have yet to be perfected. However, it is clear that active customer engagement, extensive pre-planning and a ‘one-team’ approach will be key to the success of the project.

The technology: the Melco no-dig unit

No-dig technology is becoming increasingly vital on many water projects, and the UMP is no exception to this.

One piece of technology in this field is the award-winning Melco adaptor unit. The Melco screws directly into the top of the stop tap, allowing a meter to be fitted without the need to excavate around the pipe.

The unique adjustable flow tube enables the adaptor to be fitted to old and new stop taps as the flow tube automatically adjusts to correspond to the seat of the stop tap without the need to turn off the mains water supply.

Although it can only be used when the stop tap is reachable from ground level – that is no deeper than around 0.75m – it has several advantages over other types of installation for both the customer and the installation team. For customers, the major benefit is that the installation of this type of meter is much quicker and there is no interruption to the water supply. As there is no excavation, disruption is reduced and no reinstatement works needed.

The advantages for operatives are several. With no excavation needed, the process is much safer for those fitting the meter, reducing the

need for safety barriers and traffic control. Furthermore, this also means that there is less involvement needed from third parties, such as local authorities’ highway and streetworks departments, which can sometimes cause further delays to reinstatement.

It is anticipated that around 100,000 Melco meters will be fitted during AMP5 on the UMP alone, and the unit is also likely to be a key component of future projects. With this in mind, Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions has implemented a dedicated training programme for fitting this type of meter to ensure that all of its operatives will be fully trained in this installation method for future projects.

Colin Kelly is director of gas and water at Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions.

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