Who is Stealing Your Water?

water-balance-tableWater utilities are tasked with providing homes and businesses in a defined district with a reliable supply of safe, usable water. In return for this service, they collect revenues. Sounds simple, right? The “classic” Water Balance Table in the upper left corner, however, reveals a more complicated reality. Moving from left to right, the System Input Volume represents the utility’s entire production capacity. Some of that volume is simply lost — either real physical losses from leakage or storage overflows, or commercial losses, from unauthorized consumption, meter inaccuracies and billing errors. Non Revenue Water (NRW) also includes unbilled authorized consumption, such as fire fighting, flushing of mains and sewers, street cleaning, etc.

NRW Around the GlobeThe World Bank has estimated the total cost of NRW to utilities worldwide at S$14 billion per year. NRW is typically expressed as the % of water for which no revenues were realized over the utility’s entire production capacity. The table to the right shows the mean NRW for large cities in Africa, Asia, Latin America & Caribbean, and North America. It clearly shows that NRW is a more critical issue in developing countries where effective metering and billing infrastructures are less universal. In 1996 the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Leak Detection and Accountability recommended 10% as the NRW benchmark to which American water utilities should aspire.

In our upcoming series of blogs we will be focusing on how water industry vendors play an important role in helping utilities reduce NRW for the benefit all stakeholders – operators, regulators and consumers. As the title of this blog suggests, we will start here by taking a brief look at the phenomenon of “unauthorized consumption”, i.e., theft of water from the utility.

headlineAlthough there are no hard statistics regarding the extent of water theft in a developed country like the US, there are numerous newspaper reports that seem to indicate that a typical water utility deals with dozens of cases a year of customers caught stealing water. In economic hard times, or in drought-stricken areas (see the headline), the problem is further exacerbated.

Some common ways in which water is stolen from the utility include: tampering with the meter, bypassing the meter entirely, reactivation of water meters that have been turned off by the utility for nonpayment, as well as diverting water from unmetered sources such as hydrants or fire sprinkler systems. It should also be pointed out that bypassing a water meter (taking the meter out and putting a new pipe section in) puts other customers at risk. Without a meter’s backflow preventer, contaminated water could get sucked into larger parts of the system.

One way that a utility can fight theft is to install tamper-proof water meters. Many of the Arad Group’s meters, for example, have built-in magnetic protection, with magnets being one of the common methods for attempting to tamper with the meter reading. And Aram has anti magnetic boxes and shields that can be fitted to the meter to protect against tampering with magnets or breaking the meter.

ami-featuresBut perhaps one of the most important ways that a utility can fight water theft is timely detection of significant changes in water consumption at a meter location. If a utility has an AMR/AMI solution deployed, it will be automatically alerted to changes in consumption patterns and can investigate if a meter has been tampered with or bypassed. As we can see from the chart on the right extracted from the Black & Veatch report “2014 STRATEGIC DIRECTIONS: U.S. WATER INDUSTRY”, theft detection is among the top features that utilities look for when considering an AMI program.

A good case in point is Arad’s CityMind Meter Data Management software. If a meter is being tampered with by a magnet, the meter immediately sends an alert to CityMind and the appropriate personnel is notified. CityMind also alerts if an inactive meter suddenly starts to register consumption. In addition, due to its ongoing statistical analyses, CityMind notifies when there is above average consumption or above average maximum consumption at any given meter. Although the cause could be something other than theft, such as a leak, the notification makes immediate investigation possible. One of CityMind’s newer features is that a customer can inform the water utility when he is on holiday and if during that time water consumption is suddenly recorded, an alert will be sent. Again, the suspicious consumption may not necessarily be theft, but whatever the cause, it can now be dealt with in a timely manner.

More and more utilities are prosecuting water thieves to the full extent of the law in order to discourage this unauthorized consumption which, at the end of the day, is paid for by the honest rate-payers. Deploying tamper-proof meters and effective Meter Data Management programs have an important role to play in preventing and rooting out water theft.


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