02 April 2013

Delivering water quality to the tap

I'm now in Kiev (looking into their water utility regulation), and a typical problem has popped up, i.e., the difficulty in delivering water quality to the tap.

The physical layout of water systems -- taking raw water from ground or surface sources, treating it, pumping it through large pipes to smaller pipes, then to building pipes and finally to the tap -- means that there are multiple points at which clean water can get contaminated. There's the problem of dirty water at source and poor treatment, of course, but the more common problems occur when water in transit gets dirty from old or leaking pipes.

By my understanding, most utilities run their systems to deliver clean water to the building (usually at a meter), with the quality of the piping between the meter and the tap being the building owner's responsibility.

Building piping has two problems. The first is old or leaky pipes that may contaminate the water. The second is that some buildings have many residents who share the same pipes (and sometimes the same meter). Neighbors therefore need to find ways to share their water (rather, the bill) as well as keep their communal and unit-plumbing in good condition.

There are several ways to share the bill (divide by people, install submeters, etc.), but I want to concentrate on the plumbing problem in buildings and networks. The first issue is to know whether the water is safe to drink at the tap. If that's not true, then it's important to find where it gets contaminated. That question can result in finger pointing between customers and the utility as to who should pay for water testing, so I came up with this idea, taking as given the fact that utilities (and their regulators) need to ensure that water is safe to drink; it's not the customer's obligation, even if it's in the customer's interest. Such a "fact" means that utilities need to take the lead on quality testing, and here's how I'd do it.
  1. Any utility that says its water is safe also needs to persuade customers of that fact.
  2. So it can include coupons in a few hundred bills (every month or so) that can be used to get a free water test at the customer's tap by a qualified tester. The real cost will be $10-100, depending on local labor costs.
  3. Qualified testers are listed on a website; they are certified and equipped to test water in the house. That website also provides them with free advertising.
  4. Customers contact a tester who measures their water quality (hand held testers are getting better and cheaper). Test results are posted on the internet (without an exact address) and to the utility. 
  5. "Safe" results allow the tested customer (and some share of neighbors) to have a better opinion of their water -- and drink more of it.
  6. "Unsafe" results will trigger a second test by the utility, to determine if water at the mains is clean (thus the building plumbing has issues) or also dirty. Those results will make it easier for the utility and/or building owner to take action.
  7. There's a potential problem if tester trying to get false results of unclean water (to get more business), which can be reduced by witholding payment from those whose tests are contradicted in a retest. Those who get too many false positives can be removed from the list (in 2), which will hurt their business. So they are likely to be honest.
  8. We also hope that the utility is honest, but that's the regulator's responsibility -- and no utility will be able to cover up bad test results for very long.
This idea will help utilities find contamination problems and persuade customers that water is safe to drink (and thus worth paying for!) at the same time as it supports an independent industry for assuring water quality. (Such an industry could survive in places like the Netherlands because testers are also likely to be plumbers who are ALWAYS needed.)

Bottom Line: Water quality is hard for an individual to determine, but utilities can make it easier -- and make their product more attractive -- by paying for random water tests.

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