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Finding lost water

New meters will allow city to track its own use

SOLON– How many water meters are there in the City of Solon?
Care to guess?
Public Works Director Scott Kleppe estimated somewhere around 1,200, but we’ll find out for sure pretty soon.
That’s because the city is looking to replace all of them next year in an attempt to further improve the efficiency of the municipal water system.
City council members discussed the pending project at an Oct. 4 meeting, and expect to follow up with action in the next month or two.
According to Public Works Director Scott Kleppe, the city is hopeful the new meters will help account for lost water in the system. Currently, he said, the city cannot account for a quarter-to-a-third of the water it’s pumping into its distribution system.
Twenty-six to 36 percent of the water introduced into Solon’s water lines is not billed out or otherwise specifically recorded, Kleppe reported. The American Water Works Association standard for a town the size of Solon should be about 15 percent, he said.
That water loss could be coming from a number of sources– inaccurate meters, municipal usage, usage by the fire department and leaks.
It’s a battle the city is constantly fighting, Kleppe noted. A leak was found in a line on 3rd Street, another at the water plant by a well, another more recent at the Legion ball field concession stand.
When the city tied into the new 12-inch line coming from the new ground storage reservoir, an existing leak in a joint was uncovered during excavation, he said.
The city knew the leak was there somewhere, but couldn’t find it.
“We actually twice, two different companies, had them come in, and try to identify, pinpoint where the leak was and they couldn’t,” he said. “The water was actually coming up about 600 yards away.”
The plastic pipe absorbs sound waves, he explained, making it difficult to locate a problem.
“Those are things that are always ongoing in any water system,” he said.
The new meters and their accompanying software, along with new utility billing software for city hall staff, will provide the public works department with access to a lot of information not previously accessible.
Like how much water the city itself is using.
With the current meters and software, the city staff is unable to extract such data as when a meter was installed, what type it was or when it was last checked. The city uses water for a variety of needs, Kleppe said, like injecting gas chlorine (a disinfectant) into well and wastewater systems, but the existing system won’t generate bills for city meters.
“So, it’s an accounting nightmare, with the software that we’re currently using,” he said. “With this upgrade to both the billing software and the meter software, we should be able to keep accurate track of water usage in those facilities.”
The city first installed meters with the ability to be read remotely via a hand-held transmitter in 2001.
Before that, the city relied on customer readings for billing purposes, a task that included a lot of data input by city employees.
In October of 2000, council members approved the purchase of approximately 500 rebuilt Sensus water meters and the equipment needed to operate them for about $100,000, excluding installation.
The last five years have been problematic with the Sensus interface, Kleppe said, although he noted some improvements have been made recently.
“The system you have now is aging,” said Brad Klein, of Ferguson Water Works in Des Moines, at the Oct. 4 council meeting. “That’s just how it goes.”
Klein said most municipal systems turnover at 15 years. “I think you’ve certainly pushed your system to the limit,” he said.
The city has been looking at switching to the Neptune water meter and reader Klein markets through Ferguson for about two years, he said.
The move brings a number of advantages, but chief among them, Klein said is addressing the city’s significant water loss.
“It’s pretty much opening a faucet and letting money go down the drain, literally,” Klein said. “We’re not going to find every bit of leak out there, but I certainly think we can correct a large portion of that.”
Ferguson will provide the staff to change out meters, with some assistance from city staff.
Water customers will receive notification in the mail requesting them to either sign up on a website or call for an appointment, he said.
“It does get pushy by the third, fourth notice,” Klein noted, and most stragglers schedule when they face disconnection.
No subcontractors are used, he said. All Ferguson crews will be properly attired with name tags, and will take before and after photos of each installation. Appointments will be made at the customer’s convenience.
“We work Saturdays and Sundays, whatever is needed,” Klein added.
The cost for the change-out, estimated at approximately $300,000, would be paid over a five-year period through the city’s capital improvement levy, according to City Administrator Cami Rasmussen.
The city council’s finance committee considered the cost over the summer, she said.
Council member Steve Duncan, a member of the committee, said although the new system will help to recapture revenue from lost water, it made sense financially to replace the meters gradually over the years.
Kleppe, however, would like to see the city change out all the meters at once.
“I think there’s going to be a huge cost savings doing it that way,” Kleppe said. Spreading the project out will result in crews having to return year after year, he said, and will force city staff to use two different systems at the same time.
Other options– an internal loan or external financing through the dealer– exist to finance the project, he added.
Council member Lynn Morris said she would like to compare the costs of the two options, which Klein indicated he would provide, and council members informally agreed to consider financing at a future meeting, likely before the end of the year.