Embracing Water Audits

April 18, 2017

Water remains a scarce resource throughout the country. But it’s important, even for utilities that aren’t serving drought-stricken areas, to make sure that they are getting paid the right amount for the water they are delivering. It’s important, too, that they quickly identify and repair costly leaks throughout their systems.

Water audits can point out these problems. And once utilities are aware of them, they can take the steps necessary to address them. The problem is that utilities focus on water quality—which, of course, is important—often at the expense of addressing waste and inefficiencies in the way they deliver this resource.

“Water utilities supply a service, and water is the only utility service that is ingested into the human body,” says George Kunkel, principal of Philadelphia’s Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting. “That is unique in the utility world. So we do have a well-developed regulatory structure to ensure that water quality is high. What we don’t have is the same structure or focus on the water quantity side. We don’t do enough to ensure that utilities are delivering water in an efficient manner.”

Water audits can help. Utilities can use the data generated by audits to make sure that they are billing enough for all of their customers. This helps ensure that utilities receive enough of the revenue they need to fund their improvement projects. Audits can help them identify those areas in their systems plagued, too, by real water losses—actual leaks. Finding and repairing these leaks can help utilities boost their annual incomes by a significant amount.

The good news? More utilities are embracing water audits as the helpful tools they are. The challenge? Many utilities collect water-loss data, but then don’t do enough to address the problems that these audits bring up. They do the basic work of scheduling water audits, but never move beyond this step to address what the numbers tell them.

“When you are talking about water-loss control, you are addressing a waste or an inefficiency,” says Kunkel. “There is everything to be gained from addressing that. Some utilities really focus on conservation efforts. Those are important. But it’s important, too, to look at waste and inefficiency in how you are delivering the water. You stop the leaks, and you’ll save bundles of water.”

California has long faced its own water challenges, of course. And because the state has faced these issues for so long, its public utilities remain at the forefront in crafting innovative ways to reduce the amount of water they lose.

Sue Mosburg, program manager with Sweetwater Authority, a publicly owned water agency that provides water service to about 191,500 customers in a service area that includes National City, Bonita, and the western and central portions of Chula Vista, CA, is more than familiar with these efforts. In addition to her work with Sweetwater, Mosburg is also the chairperson of the California-Nevada American Water Works Association Water Loss Control Committee.

She sees, then, just how dedicated utilities in California have become to reducing water loss, with regular water audits as one of the key tools that these utilities use. Part of the reason for this? Cost. Most of the water in California comes from the northern part of the state, while the southern portion of the state contains the largest pockets of residents. This means that California relies on a sprawling infrastructure to move water from the less-populated northern part of the state to its southern half.

“This makes water expensive here. Because it costs so much, state utilities have long focused on reducing water loss by as much as possible,” says Mosburg.

The passage of Senate Bill 555 in 2015 has made an impact, too, in the efforts California utilities are making to control water loss, Mosburg says. The bill requires utilities to issue water-loss reports every year beginning in 2017. Importantly, the bill also requires that water audits be validated by a water-loss expert, a new step that will help ensure that water audits are conducted properly.

The new law is causing utility officials to think more carefully about the information actually included in their audits, Mosburg says.

“Completing a water audit is not just about filling out a spreadsheet,” says Mosburg. “It’s not just about ticking off some boxes. It’s about understanding what the data means and what the numbers are telling you about your water delivery system.”

The key step is for utilities to actually study and analyze their water-audit data, Mosburg says. Unfortunately, that’s the step that too many utilities still gloss over.

Water audits are only effective if utilities analyze the numbers to determine, for instance, if there are significant gaps in the amount of water they are delivering to customers and the amount they are billing these same customers.

“Are there gaps highlighted by the data?” says Mosburg. “Utilities need to really look at that data.”

Utilities throughout California are now looking at ways to better analyze the metering and water-loss data they generate, Mosburg says. They can then search for anomalies that could indicate areas in their systems in which significant water loss is taking place.

This is the next evolution in water audits, Mosburg says. Collecting the data is important, of course. Using it to target specific areas of a water system for repairs or relying on the numbers to more accurately bill large users is the next step that utilities need to take to boost their water income and reduce the amount of water they lose each year.

“The idea is to learn about the data,” says Mosburg. “Maybe there are ways to keep the data differently. Utilities are doing that now. That is the starting point. They are receiving good data. Now they have to make changes as a result of that data.”

More utilities are now sharing the data from their water audits among departments, Mosburg says, a hopeful sign. Workers in utilities’ meter shops, for instance, are now sharing their data with the engineers who are focused on water quality. Utilities’ customer service departments are sharing billing data with workers who are working in the engineering department.

“It’s about coming together as a team,” says Mosburg. “They are realizing that in some cases they had duplicate data and were wasting time. They are now comparing data and finding out new things about their system. They kept data in different ways. Now they are sharing this information throughout their systems.”

By analyzing the information generated by water audits, utilities might, for instance, alter the number of years in which they test meters. Often, utilities schedule meter tests every set number of years, whether it be 15 or 20. Mosburg says that utilities are now realizing that it might make more sense to test their meters not according to a random interval of time but according to the volume of water pumped through the meters.

Other utilities have discovered that by controlling the pressure throughout their systems, they can better control wear and tear on them. Doing this requires that utilities carve their systems into pressure zones. If they are pumping water through a hilly area, they might need more pressure in that location, Mosburg says. But when they need to pump water through a flat area, utilities won’t need quite as much pressure. Utilities that rely on pressure zoning are less likely to over-pressurize an entire system just to serve one population that sits atop a hill, Mosburg says.

Utilities across the country are realizing these and other benefits from water audits. The West Trenton, New Jersey-based Delaware River Basin Commission is a good example. This agency has a big job, managing the resources for the entire Delaware River basin, an area that covers 13,500 square miles.

The commission works with the smaller water agencies serving the basin. And part of that work involves advising these agencies on how they can reduce water loss, both real losses from leaks and unaccountable water that agencies provide but fail to bill.

Ken Najjar, director of the water resources management branch for the commission, says that water audits give agencies the ability to gain control over this unaccountable water. This is important. It can be costly to fix leaking pipes. But billing customers accurately for the amount of water they consume? That doesn’t have to come with a big price tag, and it can provide significant financial benefits for a water provider, Najjar says.

“Water audits create a way to measure and determine what the best ways are to minimize these losses,” says Najjar. “That water might not actually be leaking. It’s just not accounted for. It’s important for utilities to reduce the amount of unaccountable water in their systems.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission requires the water providers in its service area to conduct and provide the results of an annual water audit each year. The commission has required these annual water audits since 2012. Najjar says that by requiring these audits—and, more importantly, requiring them to be validated by a licensed water expert—the commission has forced water agencies to discover just how efficient, or inefficient, their water delivery systems are.

“Once utilities get a handle on their apparent water losses—the water that isn’t leaking out of the system but is just not being billed—they can then work on tackling their real water losses,” says Najjar. “They can save a lot of money by focusing in on their real losses. But they can’t do that properly until they eliminate the unaccountable water. So far, the audits have been a win-win for utilities. Some might not be happy about having to do an audit, but most are happy. Most are getting good results and reducing their water losses.”

Jason Bodwell knows just how important water audits can be. He formerly worked with the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, where he helped arrange financing for water-loss programs throughout Georgia. He is now client services manager in the Atlanta office of CH2M, a company that provides water-loss training and technical assistance to water utilities.

Like others who have worked closely with utilities, Bodwell discovered that many water providers continue to struggle with water losses that simply aren’t real.

What has improved during the last 10 years, though, is that utilities today understand that unbilled water is a problem that they can no longer ignore.

“The utilities we’ve worked with often do have a lot of real loss. The operators understood that. But they didn’t realize that they had apparent losses, too,” says Bodwell. “Their meters might not be registering water consumption properly. They might be losing money through false data.”

The problems often come down to a lack of communication between utility staffers. Bodwell says that the billing clerk at a utility might realize that there are gaps in billing and metering data, but might not understand how much real water loss their systems are experiencing.

Meanwhile, engineering staff might understand just how many leaks a system has, but have no idea that their utilities aren’t billing end-users for the actual amount these clients are consuming, Bodwell says.

The best move utilities can make is also a move that water audits, highlighting both real and apparent water loss, can illuminate. That is making sure that staffers and department heads from throughout the utility communicate with each other about water issues.

“When you get people together in one room, the light bulbs go on,” says Bodwell. “They suddenly realize, ‘We are losing a lot of water here.'”

Bodwell compares it to what is known as “shrink” in retail. “Shrink” is the money retailers lose when products are stolen or broken. This loss can add up to a significant sum over the years.

The same thing happens when utilities don’t bill accurately for the amount of water they deliver. The losses from this form of “shrink” add up, Bodwell says.

“It’s all about revenue you are not collecting,” he says. “Once people adopt that mentality, that they need to find lost revenue they can use for something else, they will make changes to reduce this type of loss. Utilities have started to embrace the concept that they need to reduce the amount of water they don’t receive revenue for.”

There’s a second type of water audit that is an important one, too—the conservation audits that utilities conduct of individual end-users.

In these audits, utilities work with individual customers to help end-users consume less water, whether the end-user is a business or residential customer. The goal is simple: As utilities teach a greater number of end-users where they are wasting water and how to combat this loss, the utilities themselves will have to provide and treat a lesser amount of water throughout their system.

These user audits, then, are especially important in drought-stricken areas where water has become a precious resource.

Jeff Sandberg with the Portland Water Bureau in Portland, OR, says that the city doesn’t hire auditors or outside consultants to conduct these audits. All of the city’s end-user audits—or surveys, as Portland water officials refer to them—are done in-house by staffers.

When working with end-users, Portland water officials first determine what these customers’ goals are. Do they want to reduce water, figure out why their water consumption has suddenly risen, or are they interested mainly in becoming a greener operation?

Once water officials have this information, they begin their audits by analyzing the customer’s water consumption and by breaking out billing information to determine how much of the end-user’s bill is driven by water volume. They’ll then inventory all the equipment in a particular commercial building or residence that uses water and monitor and meter how much water each of these pieces of equipment is using.

Water officials will then identify water-saving opportunities and calculate the cost of how much clients would have to spend to consume less water. If water officials recommend low-flow toilets, for instance, they will determine how much installing these new appliances will cost and how much less water the end-user will consume once the toilets are in place.

Portland provides this information in the form of a written report. The water department will then monitor water use for the end-user after any efficiency improvements have been put in place. This way, water department officials will be able to determine whether the improvements are working as expected, Sandberg says.

“We approach an audit by looking first for ways a customer does not have to use water at all,” says Sandberg. “Then we look at how to improve efficiency with the water they need. Finally, we look at opportunities to reuse water.”

The most common problems that Portland water inspectors uncover? Leaks and malfunctioning equipment are common, Sandberg says, with toilet leaks being the most common issue of all.

And these leaks can cause a serious amount of water loss over a year, Sandberg says.

“Toilet leaks are the most common, and customers are often surprised by the significant amount of water a single toilet can waste,” says Sandberg, pointing out that a leaking toilet can cost end-users thousands of gallons of wasted water in one day.

The most common advice that the water department provides to end-users? Surveyors often recommend that building owners replace equipment that is cooled with water with equipment that is instead cooled with air. In many cases, this will save building owners a significant amount of money each year.

Sandberg says that Portland water surveyors haven’t changed their tactics much in the last decade. But that doesn’t mean that technology hasn’t changed the way water audits are conducted and, just as importantly, the way homeowners and commercial owners monitor their own water consumption.

The rise of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) can provide end-users with accurate and up-to-date information on how much water their homes or businesses are consuming at any time. End-users can then take steps to consume less water as their consumption numbers rise above normal standards.

“Our techniques have not changed dramatically during the last 10 years,” says Sandberg. “We do more water-use monitoring with data loggers and ultrasonic metering. However, the advent of AMI, where real-time use can be accessed by the customer, can have a dramatic impact on customers willing to take advantage of that technology.”

JoEllen Jacoby, water conservation landscape architect with the City of San Diego’s public utilities department, says that her department conducts a large amount of water audits for both single-family and multifamily residents, especially in the summer. About 10 years ago, the department began offering its audit service to commercial property owners, too. Auditors now inspect a growing number of these buildings each year, Jacoby says.

As in other municipalities, certified irrigation landscape auditors are the professionals who study the water-use patterns and landscaping choices at San Diego properties. These auditors produce reports showing building owners exactly how much water their properties are consuming, how this consumption matches up with similar properties, and suggestions for how they can reduce the amount of water they are using each year.

But over time, both the auditing approach and the reports that auditors create have evolved, Jacoby says. The public utilities department today focuses more on ways in which owners can save water by changing their views on what is and is not acceptable landscaping.

“We are talking more to customers today about not just failed irrigation systems but about landscape issues,” says Jacoby. “If you want to save water, you need to change your landscape. That’s what we are focusing more on today than in the past.”

Auditors, for example, can tell building owners just how much water they can save each year with their current irrigation system and the size of their plot of land by replacing grass with native plants.

Many building owners have already installed more efficient irrigation systems. The next important step for these owners, then, is to transform their landscaping from the traditional green lawn to one filled with native plants that require less water to flourish.

“That is a shift,” says Jacoby. “It’s not just that owners are being inefficient with their irrigation systems. It’s that their landscape designs are not low-water-use designs. The next way for these owners to save water is by changing their landscaping. Today, more owners are open to doing that.”

This is encouraging news to Jacoby. She says that many of the department’s audit clients—owners who have specifically asked for a water audit—are the governing bodies of homeowners’ associations. These officials might already want to make the move from a sea of green grass to native plants, but need the official recommendation from the public utilities department to bolster their case.

By presenting the findings of the department to their fellow board members and homeowners, these association officials might find it easier to convince others of how important, and cost-effective, it can be to make the switch to native landscaping.

“These officials might already know that their subdivisions or condo developments are using so much water because they have so much grass, or they have grass in silly places,” says Jacoby. “We provide an audit and now they have evidence supporting their thoughts and position. We can give them the information they need to support what they already suspect.”

What are the most common problems that San Diego inspectors discover during their audits? Jacoby says that the owners of single-family homes often don’t understand how the controllers running their irrigation systems work. They might, then, program their systems to use too much water. These owners might never have learned how to use their controllers, and might rely on gardeners, for instance, to set them.

Next on the list? Damaged irrigation systems. Many homeowners have irrigation systems with broken heads. Others are relying on systems that have been poorly designed for their spaces. Whatever the problem, it results in greater water consumption than necessary.

Finally, landscape issues remain a problem for the owners of single-family homes, Jacoby says. Many use too much grass, which requires too much watering.

This same issue is even more common at commercial sites, Jacoby says. Commercial properties often have small or oddly shaped patches of grass that are difficult to efficiently irrigate, she says.

“You can’t efficiently irrigate a space when the strip is 17 inches wide or even 3 feet wide,” says Jacoby. “You are overshooting the water all the time with those funky little triangular shapes. The location of grass in irregular and odd spaces is a common issue.”

About the Author

Dan Rafter

Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.

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