ORLEANS — You don't see a bill for the water you use in July and August until the following February. A lot can happen in that time, including leaks that send water into the ground unused after the town has paid for pumping, treating, and distributing it. In some cases, surprised homeowners are faced with bills for thousands of dollars. They ask for abatements, and more revenue is forfeited.
The board of water and sewer commissioners has a solution: replace existing meters, which must be read on-site or from mobile trackers passing by, with a cellular or radio network that would report usage daily.
“This is a customer service program,” Tom Daley, DPW/Natural Resources director, told selectmen last week. “We probably lose one to two houses a year due to pipes freezing. Your meter could be read one day and develop a leak the next day, and six to eight months later you find you owe tens of thousands of dollars. People say, 'I had a leak, I didn't know, can you help me out?' We bill them (at a lower rate), but they're still paying thousands of dollars for water that just went into the ground.”
John Meyer, who chairs the water and sewer board, tested the cellular system at his home. The first weekend it was in use, he put in a “touch-and-flush” low-flow toilet operated by batteries. Unfortunately, those batteries weren't working and a small leak developed. With daily usage data to review, the water department flagged the problem,
“A couple months later, I put several new plants in and left the hose running,” Meyer said. “The next morning, I had a notice. It's amazing how much can be determined in terms of unauthorized water use or leakage.”
Margaret McCarthy, a consultant from Weston & Sampson, said cellular or radio reporting would eliminate 480 hours of staff time now dedicated to on-site meter readings as well as transportation costs. Under the new system, hourly readings would be reported daily, allowing faster resolution of disputed bills and better tracking of water pumped into the system versus the total consumed.
“There's talk of moving to quarterly (from semi-annual) billing,” McCarthy said. “The current system makes that problematic.”
Between 2014 and 2017, the department abated $64,000 worth of charges. “A lot of this could have been reduced by having some information earlier in the process,” said McCarthy. “One bill was just short of $13,000, with an abatement for (more than) $9,000. Another bill was (more than) $11,500, with an abatement of (more than) $8,200.” Earlier notice to consumers could have reduced those costs significantly.
The town's 400 commercial and 4,305 residential meters would be replaced or retrofitted at a cost of around $2 million. Daley said the water and sewer board would come to the selectmen with recommendations for a May Town Meeting article in February, with hopes that installation could begin in August. Selectmen asked that a staggered replacement or retrofit of the meters over several years be examined in the context of a “pay-as-you-go” program that would not require borrowing.
“The way you want to do this is to program these so you don't have peaks and valleys,” said Selectman Alan McClennen, who referenced the department's long-range asset management plan. “The plan forces us to take a big bite of the apple. Because we've delayed, we have to take a big bite of the apple this year.”
Town Administrator John Kelly said he would ask Finance Director Cathy Doane to work with the water department to update the asset management plan and present options on payment options for the new system.