Non-Revenue Water: An Opportunity for Water Utilities, Now More than Ever

By Travis Smith

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the water industry. Revenue shortfalls from a decline in commercial and industrial water use and some residential customers struggling to pay bills are affecting utilities across the country. The service must go on, but in some cases the revenue lags. Conservative estimates from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies suggest the industry as a whole is expected to lose at least $12.5 billion due to the coronavirus when all is said and done.

Revenue concerns are spurring utilities to find new infrastructure investments that can help offset shortfalls. The persistent problem of non-revenue water (NRW) is a good place to start.

A recent American Society of Civil Engineers report found that the United States lost an estimated $21 million of treated water in 2019 due to leaks and projected the number to reach $48 million by 2039 with current investment trends. The same report found that American businesses most reliant on water will spend $250 billion in 2039 on water service disruptions.

Water utilities can view the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to address water loss and shore up much-needed revenue to fill gaps, improve sustainability and modernize.

Technology Points the Way

One of the most beneficial technology investments utilities can make in helping stem water loss is a smart utility network. Utilities with remote management and monitoring seamlessly provide customer service and keep their workers safe by limiting customer interaction.

Apparent loss is a smart starting point for utilities looking to align infrastructure investments with water loss prevention. Apparent loss refers to water that is produced, but not measured. Enhancing metering capabilities with a smart utility network can help minimize this type of loss and generate cost savings with a focus on three key areas:

Meter accuracy—Mechanical meter components experience wear, so there may be performance issues over time that causes the meter to not record all of the consumption. Replacing or recalibrating older meters could help restore accuracy and often increases the revenue capture by 5 to 20 percent.  Installing new smart meters could help jumpstart the revenue curve and potentially save millions of dollars.

Billing—Records can be lost when completed manually or lead to issues with units of measurement if systems were not installed correctly. For example, a utility might record data in cubic feet but bill in gallons, resulting in customers not paying as much as they should for their water. Utilities can streamline the billing process to reduce errors using an automated system coupled with a smart utility network solution.

Unauthorized use—Alarms embedded in smart meters help utilities detect meter tampering and access from unauthorized personnel. Smart alarms with tamper alerts can detect attempted theft and prevent additional lost revenue.

Given the current revenue picture for utilities, some may be skeptical about new investments. However, the pandemic has positively highlighted utilities that have not skipped a beat because of remote capabilities. It doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing investment in a smart utility network. Initial investments in capabilities can be extended incrementally as cost savings accrue. Each step can be financially supported by the previous one.

Beyond Apparent Loss

It is safe to say that NRW demands will continue in a post-pandemic world. The financial challenges posed by NRW are exacerbated by government regulations that require water audits for many utilities to prove reduction in water loss for conservation and sustainability.

Real loss is another aspect of NRW that occurs when a leak or spill happens and the water never gets to the customer. As utilities build more intelligence across their IT platforms for water loss reduction, they can identify a potential leak before it becomes a costly problem. Utilities can address real loss by enhancing water distribution management and monitoring systems.

For example, adding mass balance capabilities allows utilities to remotely view water consumption compared to water production and/or purchase. The use of district meters may also segment the network to provide additional focus on specific regions. If something comes up, service technicians will know which region to focus on to quickly address the issue. This system also allows utilities to understand which zones might be prone to water leakage, allowing for better prioritization of preventive maintenance.

The Pressure Profile solution is a user-friendly smart water application that graphically illustrates the water pressure of the measured points with respect to location over time, helping you reduce leakage and bursts and ensure proper system pressure for desired service levels. This map image is from a North Carolina utility with a view of elevation and custom alarms for water pressure. You can set up alarm thresholds in the application to warn of high pressure or low-pressure conditions with respect to operations, diurnal usage, seasonal usage, fire events, locations, groups and individual service connections.

Utilities should assess their water-loss strategies based on their own needs and budgets. Most will benefit from taking a step-by-step approach to advance their overall water loss prevention efforts as they move beyond the pandemic and further enhance their system. For instance, utilities can add more advanced solutions, such as pressure monitoring, to gain more insight across their infrastructure. Monitoring pressure at 3 to 5 percent of the service connections and elevated points within the distribution system provides indications of pressure drops due to real losses. It also helps pinpoint potential repairs or replacements. Moreover, pressure provides insights into system behavior and enables a proactive approach to address system issues such as low or high pressure and pipe bursts or leaks.

The Road Ahead

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, so does the economic uncertainty for water utilities. Now is the time for utility leaders to think about the future and consider infrastructure modernization. The opportunity exists for water providers to emerge stronger and more prepared for what comes next. The right smart utility network will not only stem NRW but also creates a foundation to maximize water system health and accuracy with immediate cost savings now and down the road.

Travis Smith is the Director of North American Water Strategy at Sensus, a Xylem brand. He has more than 25 years of experience in the water and wastewater industries including treatment plant design, project management, chemical handling, controls and instrumentation, operations efficiency and communication systems.

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