Olathe, Kansas: A Sustainable City Through Water Conservation

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over the past 50 years, the U.S. population has doubled in size and its thirst for water has tripled. Water usage in the next 25 years is expected to climb another 50 percent. With at least 36 states now facing water shortages by 2013, the conservation of water is more important than ever for municipalities nationwide. It?s never been more critical for cities to look for ways to do more with fewer resources.

One municipality, located 20 miles south of Kansas City, is demonstrating environmental and fiscal responsibility to its residents. Through an innovative funding method known as performance contracting, the city of Olathe, Kan., implemented smart water solutions to reduce apparent water loss, increase efficiency and conserve energy.

Water quality issues and wear and tear reduce the accuracy of a water meter over time. Thousands of Olathe?s small water meters had been in service for more 35 years and were recently operating with 85 percent accuracy or less. The city was unable to properly track billable usage, leading to a significant loss in water and sewer revenue.

Olathe leadership selected Johnson Controls to update the city?s water distribution system, and implement a variety of other energy conservation and operational efficiency improvements. The partnership allowed Olathe to narrow a list of 24 desired projects down to nine that would best meet the city?s goals. The centerpiece of the project was the installation of new water meters with an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system, allowing the city to reduce apparent water loss, lower operational and maintenance expenditures, increase billable usage and revenue, and provide exceptional customer service. Local workers were hired to assist in the project to keep the investment within the community.

More than 34,000 water meters were replaced and connected to the new AMI system. With the new water meters greatly reducing apparent water loss, the system virtually eliminates human error from the meter reading and billing process.

Special reporting groups enabled through the AMI system help Olathe track overall and exceptional water usage conditions on a frequent basis, as well as indicate instances of meter tampering and theft of service. The data provided by the AMI system can be used to resolve billing disputes and inform residents of potential leaks on their property.

Performance Contracting

Implementing beneficial water and energy conservation solutions requires investments that can seem daunting for municipalities in times of economic hardship. As cities like Olathe have discovered, performance contracting can make it possible to fund vital improvement projects with no up-front investment, and without the need for rate or tax increases, or bond elections.

Under a performance contract, an energy services company (ESCO) performs an investment grade audit of the water and wastewater distribution system, the utility?s facilities, and the operational and maintenance policies for the municipality. The ESCO, in partnership with the city, then develops a scope of work and determines the associated benefits that will be realized from the project.

The enabling legislation in most states requires that the guaranteed benefits must pay for the project over the term of the contract. If the guaranteed savings is not realized, the ESCO must repay the difference. In many cases, the term of contract is far less than the useful life of the equipment, meaning the municipality continues to reap the benefits long after the project cost has been paid.

Olathe entered into a performance contract to complete its $12.1 million project. Johnson Controls guarantees that the city will receive $17.4 million in project benefits over an 11-year term.

Project Results

In Olathe, the additional benefits of water meter improvements and from the efficiencies gained by implementing the AMI system were applied toward energy efficiency improvements at the Olathe Municipal Services campus. The city?s fleet washing station now uses a solar hot water system; waste motor oil from city vehicles now fuels a heater in the welding shop; smart vending machine control systems support operations only when the area is occupied or when needed to maintain product quality; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems were re-commissioned and upgraded.

When the performance contracting project began, the city wanted to educate its citizens about what to expect as the water meters were replaced and to reassure residents that water and sewer rates would not be raised as a result. The city explained that any billing increases were the result of the new, accurate water meters to measure actual usage.

Olathe also utilized billboards, posters, a video on the city?s website and literature distributed with water bills, to reassure citizens that they could expect minimal disruption to their water service as meters were replaced. This communication also notified residents that new water meter upgrades would not cost utility workers their jobs. Municipal workers affected by the project would be assigned to important maintenance projects that had been deferred for many years because of labor shortages.

Raising the Bar for Water Conservation

Olathe?s partnership with Johnson Controls also includes a research project surrounding the new electronic water meters. The city installed special tandem water meter setters at 24 residences, each with an electromagnetic small water meter on one branch and a positive displacement small water meter on the other. Both meters are connected to Olathe?s AMI system so that each meter can provide hourly usage data.

The study was designed to compare the performance of the new electromagnetic water meters to traditional mechanical water meters in a typical residential setting. The hourly usage data from each of the meters is analyzed at the end of each monthly billing cycle. Johnson Controls will continue to monitor and update the findings from this study for the foreseeable future.

Water loss prevention programs can help municipalities realize significant operational and maintenance savings, and save residents money while promoting energy and water efficiency. Olathe is setting the pace for municipal innovation, leading the way on the value of smart water solutions. By realizing significant cost and energy savings, the city has shown other communities what can be done to conserve water in a fiscally responsible way.

Craig Hannah, P.E., is Development Manager for Johnson Controls Inc.?s Municipal Utility Solutions.

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