A Pennsylvania Water Authority Demonstrates the Benefits of Leak Detection
Through a series of projects over the last 10 years, including the replacement of numerous waterlines, the Gallitzin Water Authority succeeded in reducing water losses of a staggering 70% to almost zero.
Generally speaking, a water utility expects to lose between 10% and 20% of the water it processes as a result of system leaks. Because of increases in costs and decreases in water supply, many water utilities attempt to reduce water loss by implementing a systematic approach to leak detection and correction.
In order to assess water loss, a water utility first determines the amount of apparent losses compared to the amount of real losses. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) defines apparent losses as “paper losses” involving faulty metering, inefficient accounting systems, and other computer errors. Real losses involve physical losses from leaks, inefficiency, or theft. Real losses are of particular concern to utilities because they increase production costs, put additional strain on delivery systems, and impact all areas of operation. One of the most efficient tools available to water utilities to aid in loss reduction is leakage control.
Unfortunately, leak detection is not always easy. Although some water loss can be immediately apparent at the surface level, many leaks begin below ground. Undetected, these leaks continue to grow over time. The California Department of Water Resources identifies the danger of subsurface leaks, warning that an undetected leak can flush water into “other underground facilities such as storm drains, sewers, electrical conduits, basements of buildings, or old abandoned pipes.” By undermining the foundation of nearby roads and structures, these invisible leaks can cause serious damage to local infrastructure. Without proper monitoring, subsurface water loss may be interpreted as increased water demand, resulting in overcompensation of the utility. Overcompensation increases system pressure, leading to larger leaks and even greater water loss.
Loss reduction through leak repair requires a thorough knowledge of the volume of water at all levels of the system, from pumps to pipes to customers. A water audit essentially compares the amount of water pumped out of a system against the amount of water metered by the customer. The difference between those two numbers gives the utility an idea of how much water the system uses and how much water goes missing between point A and point B. When performing a water audit, utilities follow the four-step process outlined by the AWWA: First a utility determines the identity and quantity of each source of water; then it verifies authorized meter usage; next it estimates the amount of unmetered use; and finally the utility estimates the total water lost.
Upon completion of the audit, a utility can pursue a variety of different options. The utility can conduct its own repairs or hire a private company. Leak detection costs between $100 per acre-foot and $200 per acre-foot, but in many instances these costs can be offset by loans and/or grants from local and federal government agencies. Utilities often decide to work with governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations to find the best solution.
The State of Pennsylvania has committed a significant amount of funding and support to promote water conservation. Part of this effort comes in the form of the Growing Greener program. First signed into law on December 15, 1999, and reauthorized in June 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lauds the program as “the largest single investment of state funds in Pennsylvania’s history to address Pennsylvania’s critical environmental concerns of the 21st century.” The program uses its $240 million budget to fund and promote a variety of projects, from preservation of farmland and open space to watershed cleanup and infrastructure improvements. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority manage the funds.
Growing Greener promotes water conservation through programs such as Drought Watch (a state-run program that releases requests for system-wide cut-back) and the Susquehanna River Basin Water Conservation Project (a pilot systematic leak detection project). The goal of the Growing Greener program, says Dave Plank, chief technical services section water supply manager for the Pennsylvania DEP, “is to take areas that aren’t green anymore and make them greener, to turn away from industrialization.”
Specifically, Growing Greener “is focused on smarter development,” says Plank, “how to grow smarter in Pennsylvania by growing greener.”
The issue of land development is particularly acute in eastern Pennsylvania where, Plank says, developers are taking over farmland. Growing Greener responds to the challenges of suburban sprawl and land development by “managing green space through applications for funding and permits, and recommending and acting upon suggested projects.”
Water conservation continues to be a major concern for the Pennsylvania DEP. According to Plank, leaks and distribution failures can create up to a 50% water loss for a water utility. The DEP works with water systems to “fix infrastructure, tighten up their system, and install new meters,” and this help, says Plank, results in real benefits for the participating utilities because “making them more accountable increases their income and reduces waste.”
According to Plank, the DEP, working with the Growing Greener program, “naturally strives for water conservation with a goal of under 20% water loss.”
The DEP plans on continuing to work to increase water conservation by working with water utilities and the public. Currently, smaller water utilities present the DEP with a challenge in terms of compliance.
“We find that we run into some compliance issues because they may not be up on their regulations,” explains Plank, “or maybe they didn’t do a public notification quick enough, or maybe they weren’t up on their normal sampling that they should have reported. We have to spend more compliance time with [the smaller systems].”
One way that the DEP battles the compliance issue is through service and support. Plank explains that the state provides a program whereby the smaller utilities “can get engineering services by applying through our Harrisburg central office if they need some improvements with their system.”
The DEP offers continual support to the small utilities in the state. “We’re always available,” says Plank. “We have field supervisors and sanitarians out in the field so if they need some assistance or somebody to sit down and talk with we’re always available either through a phone call or actually meeting with them onsite to work with them through a problem.”
The DEP also provides a constant stream of information to help the utilities perform efficiently and within state guidelines. For example, says Plank, the DEP sends out “monitoring calendars every year to all the systems so they know when their sampling is due, so if they follow the calendars they shouldn’t run into any problems with regard to sampling.”
Ultimately, the DEP continues to be committed to solving a water conservation or water-quality issue while it is still small and manageable. The way the DEP does this, explains Plank, is to “make ourselves not be only regulatory. We really want them to work with us.”
In this way the DEP can move itself out of a defensive position and instead rely on a proactive approach to water loss and water-quality issues. “If there is a problem out there we’d really like them to call us up right away and say, ‘Let’s get this resolved,’” says Plank, “instead of not hearing anything about it and then everything breaks lose and it hits the news media and then it becomes even more of a problem.”
Being a regulatory agency, the DEP has the muscle to force the utilities to comply with conservation and quality requirements. The DEP always chooses to begin with a cooperative approach. Plank explains, “We try to work with them first. We don’t bring the hammer down on them right away, especially if they haven’t had problems in the past.”
According to Plank, the DEP will “try to work with them and correct the problem,” but continual violations may eventually force a tougher stance by the DEP. “If it occurs again we need to see why it happened again,” Plank states. “If there was not a good reason why they couldn’t comply for a second time or a third time, that’s when you might sit down with them—maybe even with a department attorney—and tell them, ‘This is what you need to do or pay the fine.’”
Of course, implementing fines on smaller systems presents another challenge: collecting on that fine. Plank says, “The problem is some of the systems are smaller anyway and to get money out of them might be difficult, but sometimes you have to do that anyway to get their attention.”
As stated above, leak detection and repair not only conserve water but also often result in economic benefits for participating utilities. According to Plank, water utilities that take part in leak detection programs often save so much money through conservation they are able to easily pay off the loans incurred in order to fund infrastructure improvements. The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) administers these loans. The economic benefits are often the only incentive a small utility needs to compel it to institute a serious approach to water conservation through leak detection.
In 1988 then-governor Robert P. Casey started the PENNVEST funding program to address Pennsylvania’s infrastructure needs. PENNVEST administers over $450 million worth of funds to improve drinking water, promote covered reservoirs, and improve utility operations with the installation of new pumps and other equipment. Plank, who has worked with the program since its inception, describes PENNVEST as “a fast-moving program that provides billions of dollars in funding for infrastructure improvements, and there’s a lot of good water quality out there now as compared to 1988.”
The City of Gallitzin Water Authority (GWA) has benefited greatly from state-funded infrastructure improvements. A small mining community located in western Cambria County, PA, Gallitzin’s 2,000 residents are surrounded by 42 rivers and streams in an area known for its natural beauty. The GWA serves this small community, as well as Allegheny Township and Tunnelhill Borough, using a water supply consisting of five rain-supplied springs and the Upper West Branch Susquehanna watershed. In 1994, the GWA discovered severe water losses throughout its system. The GWA ultimately calculated that it was losing over 70% of its water supply. Upon further investigation, the authority identified several problems including high water loss, low-pressure complaints, and recurrent leaks. The authority then set out to fix the problem.
To do so, the GWA needed to solve its economic insolvency. As Larry Bem, distribution foreman for the GWA, explains, “We were financially broke.”
To solve the problem of funding, Bem says the GWA regrouped and changed focus. “We just reorganized everything,” he says. “We made this thing top priority and a lot of things had to be set aside. We just bit the bullet and we got a couple of local loans. … We started some small line replacements on the older section of our town and that really helped us out.”
The GWA also received assistance from the Pennsylvania DEP Small Water Systems Outreach Program. The DEP chose Gallitzin to be one of the first systems to receive technical assistance from its organization. With the department’s help, the GWA developed a plan of action to reduce system water leaks, improve service, and promote efficiency.
“We got ourselves back on the grounds where we could afford to buy stuff,” says Bem, “and we started implementing buying new meters, updating meters, and reading them monthly.”
Bem outlines the approach used by the GWA: “Before we hired private contractors, we did our own work in-house. We went out, we worked nights … started getting the system back in order. That’s when we went in and got the loans and did a couple streets ourselves. Then we were in contact with PENNVEST and we were able to float the whole town.”
The authority also used a seven-day meter reading study to record the amount of water running through the system, and then used a system map to determine the location of the leaks. After discovering 95% of the leaks through this process, the authority hired private contractors to find the remaining 5%. The use of private contractors (HRI Contractors for the initial project and Kukurin Contracting for the second project) helped expand the scope of the project and speed up the process.
“We just bid that out,” explains Bem, “ because there was no way we could do the whole town. They did it in a year and a half and it probably would’ve taken us 10 years.”
By 1998 the GWA had dropped its overall water loss from that initial 70% to 9%. The reduced water loss extended the life expectancy of the equipment and improved customer satisfaction. Even more significantly, the fixes resulted in real economic benefits in the form of reduced overtime costs and reduced water purchasing costs during drought. The GWA also discovered additional savings resulting from a $5,000 reduction in chemical costs and a $20,000 annual reduction in power costs.
In a September 2001 report, PENNVEST, along with the DEP, analyzed the GWA and determined that problems still remained, including poor water quality, insufficient water quantity, and “high water loss from deteriorated lines, poor service pressure, and inadequate fire protection capability.” These findings prompted PENNVEST to approve a funding package consisting of $2,929,094 in loans and $1,570,906 in grants in order to assist the GWA. Using the PENNVEST funds, the GWA replaced 4 miles of water distribution lines in one location and 11 miles of deteriorated water lines in another location, and constructed a new water supply well for Allegheny Township. These improvements helped combat contamination of the water supply by giardia and other bacteria, and eliminated water supply shortages during drought conditions.
In 2003, the GWA replaced all of the system’s pipes, putting an end to the corrosion and recurrent leak problems that had plagued them since the late 1990s. Pipes in the distribution line were replaced with $4 million worth of pipes acquired from another PENNVEST loan.
Bem states that the GWA’s current leak detection program focuses “on a few service lines that we find and repair. Water is metered at the plant, the pump, and the customer. … We keep an eye on everything.”
In the future, the GWA plans on expanding its current service area. “We can go north,” says Bem. “Once we get in some more wells, we can move toward small municipalities out there that don’t have a water system right now. That was our goal in our 25-year plan.”
Unfortunately, current legal issues regarding the use of private contractors for the previous improvement programs have stalled some of the GWA’s activities. Explains Bem, “Because of the legal stuff, now it’s been put on the back burner so I don’t know what we’ll do now.
“We were intending,” Bem continues, “in these last two years, before this legal stuff started, to put in some more new wells and try to expand the system. But that stuff’s pretty much been put on hold right now.”
Nevertheless, the improvements already made by GWA have helped the utility become efficient and proactive in its conservation approaches. The effects of the new system are improved water quality and, according to Bem, zero water losses.
“Right now we’re in the goods,” says Bem. “We’re just trying to watch everything we spend. The metering pumps at the plant will start to need to be replaced, just 15- to 20-year stuff coming up. Anything that needs to be done now will be small and we’ll do it in-house.”
Plank disputes the 0% loss boasted by the Gallitzin Water Authority. He says at best water utilities can keep water loss “at under 10%, but nobody’s at 0%.” Nevertheless, Plank applauds Gallitzin’s effort and recognizes how far it’s come. “They took a leaky system and turned it into a good system.”
Leak detection and repair is a significant aspect of water conservation. As stated above, many leaks occur underground and can continue unseen for months, slowly increasing in volume until a small problem becomes a big issue. Unless utilities constantly monitor their systems with water audits and leak detection protocols, water loss will continue to adversely impact supply and delivery. Pennsylvania has invested significant time and money into education and infrastructure improvements. The Gallitzin Water Authority exemplifies the successes experienced in Pennsylvania. With the right help and funding, the results of an extensive leak detection and prevention program can be striking. Suffering sieve-like water losses in the mid- to late ’90s, Gallitzin now stays well below the national average for water loss, proving that even small systems can effect big change.
As Bem so humbly states, “We have a good system here; we keep track of every drop of water that’s being moved.”
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Water Efficiency magazine and Distributed Energy magazine