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Water Meters in Castlegar

Update: Please see the post – Castlegar Turns on the Water Metering for more information.

Does Castlegar need Water Metering?

That is the question posed today in the public forum. Members of the public were given the opportunity to raise their questions to the technical staff of the city. Chris Barlow gave an excellent presentation on the current thinking of the city on the proposed metering of all residential properties in Castlegar.

Chris started his presentation with the statement that metering would be voluntary, and citizens would have the opportunity to join the scheme at a rate of 500 homes a year, with the full community metered in 6-8 years.

Hopefully none of the installations look like this!

Water Meter Party

[ad#468]From the presentation:

Why Meter?

Conservation. Castlegar has an excellent clean source of water with the Arrow Lakes in the Columbia River system. It seems that most years there is an excess of water even with the amount that flows down to the states. Summer usage is approximately 4 times that of mid winter. Meters are a good incentive for users to reduce their water consumption, particularly if the pricing structure is appropriately scaled. Conservation of water is a good thing, consumers should be aiming to reduce their water consumption to the optimal level, this is different for an elderly couple who use the dishwasher and washing machine once a week, to a family of six with young kids who need clothes and dishes washed daily. Water is not scarce here, water restrictions are more to encourage reasonable, sensible use of the supply during the summer months, rather than for genuine conservation reasons.

Equality. Some users were using over 10 times the volume of water than the lowest water users. The argument that all other commodities, i.e. gas and electricity were on a per consumption basis was given. This is a commonly posed argument, generally power and gas companies have shareholders and are expected to turn an annual profit, the needs of the consumer are pretty low down on the priority list when there’s a monopoly and money to be made.

System Performance. This is Chris’ baby, he states that the City’s water network is reaching it’s capacity on the Maximum Day Demand, which determines the size of the system. There is a benefit with being able to detect leaks in the system, and a small benefit in having less maintenance on pumps and pipe lines. Overall though, as long as the system can meet fire flow requirements at the maximum day demand, there is no significant cost to the city when usage increases.

Regulatory Compliance. I don’t understand why this is included in this presentation. Sounds like the requirement to add a UV treatment plant is a provincial requirement that has to happen regardless of consumption. The revenue from a network with water meters should be no greater or less than without.

Long Term Financial Implications. If the current trends of consumption continue, then upgrades of the system become necessary. A figure of $500,000 to $1,000,000 replacement cost per kilometer of pipe was quoted, then a point was made that if the city can defer or eliminate the replacement of pipes, this would be great. Now if they think that they are not going to have to replace a pipe, they should probably have a think about auditing the current network, identify aging pipes and lines likely requiring upgrading, then seeing how much they should be putting aside each year for maintenance, cause that cost doesn’t decrease.

The Proposed Program

Dripping Faucet The current proposal suggests that a new bylaw be created with a new rate structure for customers with meters. At a rate of 500 meters a year, “volunteers” would be accepted into the program, home-owners can purchase an acceptable meter and MXU (radio data transmitting) device and have it installed by a plumber, or by themselves. 75% of the capital cost of the meter will be reimbursed once it is proved to be installed in accordance with the city and manufacturers requirements. The proposed starting rate would be a fixed monthly charge of $5 and a charge of $0.32 per kL. Usage and rates would be reviewed and adjusted annually.

Generally a pretty good idea, just needs some of the details ironed out, and ensure that all, including the snowbirds are paying for their connection to the network.

Meters would be installed in accordance with the provincial building code regulations which currently don’t require the connection to be made at the property boundary, rather they can be installed in the basement, which typically would be at a lower cost to the homeowner than installing a vault.

Community Discussion

[ad#200-left]I was given the opportunity to raise my issues with the proposed water metering scheme. My main points were in opposition to the way the costs were being apportioned and the lack of detail in the proposal and the documentation supporting it. Being a community forum, the answers were general, but thankfully the City now has the opportunity to review the thoughts of the community on this matter. There were some impassioned pleas for the council to listen to the people, and overwhelmingly, few people were arguing or agreeing with the introduction of meters. Several were very against the idea of water metering, and offered  number of points in defense of seeking alternative options; it’s hard to know if this is a general dislike of change and council decisions, or if the arguments posed are genuinely about water meters and fears that people have with the proposal as it stands.

It seems that much of the public discussion revolved around the existing network capacity in light of current and future demands from residential, commercial and industrial properties around town. The capacity of reservoirs, trunk mains and pump stations pose an upper limit on the water currently available to the city, and many people believe that the money invested in the water meter program could be better invested in upgrading some of this infrastructure.

I raised the question whether a petition against the bylaw could force it to a referendum, even though it was for a voluntary program, my point being that even those who were not planning on subscribing to this metered rate would somehow be disadvantaged, which on the surface seems inevitable, particularly in the first few years while the City is in the enticing mode. More after the jump…

My Questions

Some questions I still have…

  • If it’s not universal metering, how will leaks be detected.
  • If it’s not at the property boundary, people will ensure their yard water is taken off prior to the meter, (likely in the basement).
  • What regulatory powers will the city have to prosecute home owners who attempt to bypass the water meter.
  • What are the ongoing plans for non-critical watermain replacement programing throughout the aging network.
  • Is the warranty void if not installed by a registered plumber.
  • If this is under a funded capital works program, who owns the meter.
  • If it is voluntary, can a home owner who signs up choose down the track to go back to flat fee, particularly if they want to water their lawn more.

If no water meters were installed and the cost of running the metering program, (data collection, meter replacement, testing, bills, issuing cheques), which I estimate at about $30,000 a year at today’s rates; could be put to a different use, here’s my suggestion. Employ a bylaw enforcement officer to issue warnings on first offence, $500 fines on second offence for water offences, (watering roadway, watering outside of designated hours etc), the City could probably use that money for anything and the fines would become a source of funding, separate to and  outside of the water fund, that could be used for upgrades to the system.

A Technical Question about MXU’s for my own benefit

One thing I didn’t really think about until tonight is how the MXU unit (radio transmission unit) is powered, does it require a power source, does it recharge off the water supply driving a turbine, or does it have a really long life battery. Well, I looked it up, and at least one manufacturure can offer a 20 year lifespan on the battery….

The MXU’s transceiver is powered by one bobbin-type LiSOCl12 C-cell in combination with an HLC, (high-rate, low-impedance hybrid layer capacitor). This hybrid battery pack delivers the high current pulses required to maximize data streams and increase transmission frequency. Furthermore, it offers a 20-year warranty made possible by the battery pack’s low self-discharge rate, about 1%/year. The –40°C to 85°C temperature range allows meter readers to gather accurate, reliable, and timely data regardless of weather conditions.

By eliminating the need for battery changeouts over a 20-year period, the MXU 505C meter transceiver unit helps water utilities reduce maintenance and operating costs, resulting in a higher return on investment and the most efficient use of resources.

Sensors – March 2004 – Battery Power for Remote Wireless Sensors

Decision Time

The city staff and council have some tough decisions to make on this issue, and it’s really bold of the city to hold such an open forum for the citizens to discuss their questions and problems. The timing (4-7pm) allowed two readings of the presentation and for over a hundred citizens to listen and comment on the discussion.

I’ll be keeping track of the progress of the city and staff on this matter, I’m keen to see water conservation promoted and incentives to consumers to use less, but maybe that’s the draught stricken Australian deep down inside me trying to get a grip on having so much water available. It really doesn’t make sense from a supply perspective to restrict water usage, but from a review on the cost of improvements to the water infrastructure, I want hard figures with a Net Present Value cost analysis to show me why we should restrict water consumption, hence delaying the inevitable upgrades.

The trick with the Net Present Value analysis is that there is no time like the present to either start saving for capital works in the future, or just bite the bullet and do it now.

Leave a comment or drop me a line via my contact page, I’d love to discuss this further.

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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