Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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District Meters – The Greatest Discovery Since Sliced Bread?

In his third article on the Irish Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee on Water, Joe Dalton,Water Engineer/Consultant  shares his views on district water metering. The piece initially featured on Joe's Water Blog.


Given the political focus in Ireland on District Meters, in my third article on the Irish Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee on Water I focus on their use, or lack thereof, in Ireland up to now.

There has been much deliberation by various Committee members on the benefits of District Metering. Why they ask, couldn’t we have had District Metering to help sort out our leakage problems? Wouldn’t this have been better than domestic metering? If only we could have had the advice from the more enlightened water utilities in Scotland and Wales we could have avoided so many problems.

When the benefits of District Metering were highlighted in the Expert Commission report I was gratified to hear various political figures, including many I often disagree with, mentioning this aspect of water network management and highlighting its importance. There is something pleasing about having your day job which you have been quietly working on for many years, albeit not in Ireland in my case, appreciated at a political level. However, I must confess to tiring of the notion, stated week after week at the Committee meetings, that District Metering is the greatest thing since sliced bread and as if this is some sort of new discovery unearthed by the Committee.

District Metered Areas (DMAs) have been in use since the early 1980s as a water loss management tool and are common practice among global water utilities, including Ireland. Personally, I have been working with them for well over 10 years in many countries. There are some practitioners who believe they aren’t the most effective water loss management tool, but that is a debate for another day. For now, the point is that they are “established practice” for managing water losses in Ireland and have been so for a long time.

The Managing Director of Irish Water, Jerry Grant, reported that there are 4,417 District Meters installed across the state, far more than in Scotland, which has a similar population. Yet Scottish Water have successfully brought leakage down while Irish Water and its predecessors in the 34 local authorities have not. The reasons why are to do with the fact that in 2013, when Irish Water was established, 50% of the District Meters were not operating correctly. Clearly some of the 34 local authorities were challenged to maintain them. It would indeed be interesting to know how they compared with each other in this regard. It would also be interesting to know what the current level of operability is, assuming Irish Water have improved the situation. These questions were unfortunately not asked by the Committee members.

Unlike the situation in Ireland, Scottish Water have the advantage of a secure revenue stream from domestic and commercial charging, which allows them to plan their Operation and Maintenance (O&M) activities, including District Meter maintenance and leakage control. It was interesting to hear Maria Graham from the Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government describe how, before Irish Water was established, water engineers in the 34 local authorities would fight for their slice of the particular local authority annual budget. This is no way to run water services and helps explain why practically every country except Ireland transferred responsibility for water services provision to a specialist utility provider several decades ago. But of course, we like to do things differently in Ireland.

So yes, District Metering is a very useful tool in water loss management. The Committee is correct to recognise this. But there is no need for them to overly dwell on that fact. And it is certainly not the only tool in the box. The reasons why 50% of District Meters were not functioning, and what Irish Water has done to rectify this situation, most certainly are appropriate for the Committee to consider however.

4 comments :

James Quigley said...

I have to give it to you for your persistence. However, in my dogged opinion, there are many things besides metering that should be the focus. You are quite right to mention that it is the 'political focus' in Ireland today but not for technical reasons you as an engineer may think. This narrow 'political focus' is only a smoke screen, a side show devised by 'the powers that be' including Irish Water Ltd to deflect from the big social and political picture.

It is not about leakages, it is not about the environment, it is not about 'state of the art' services. It is about asset management and corporate entities, getting every ready of privatisation, just like all the other state assets sold to or run by private corporations, The irony of it all is they are using our money to do it and they are trying to get more out of us for using a commodity that they can quantify. That is their intention for metering.

You may have high regard for Jerry Grant, or Maria Graham, Irish Water Ltd, various Departments, Civil Service and so called experts but trough experience, I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them.
As for the Oireachtas show, it is like all media a matter of taste or perception, or maybe through the glass darkly. Your perception of the Oireachtas Water show seems a shade than mine. In my opinion a lot of quests like the aforementioned wold not be objective. So their so their so called facts may have been manipulated to get desired results, Now where did I hear that from? Oh yes Irish Water Ltd. A lot of the guests conveniently or whatever, mislaid quite a bit of information and promised to send it to the committee member. I wonder did this happen? On the subject of information, the public were not privy to submissions or what went on in the often private sessions or even the mention important mislaid facts. I complained to the Oireachtas secretary this but as yet have had no satisfactory reply. Other interesting things I asked of the Oireachtas secretary were how come the Chairman got a vote, and whether there was a stipulated amount of sessions that a member had to attend in order to qualify for voting. I did not get answers yet.

You hit on a particular interesting and crucial issue, that of funding. Again you have missed the point by focusing on the head of Mr Coveney's Department Maria Graham's somewhat selective statements. Maybe you are not aware, and Ms Graham certainly did not enlighten us, about the scarcely mentioned fact that people of Ireland have been paying for decades through VAT and Motor tax for our water infrastructure. Now where did all that money go?

Another political question you fail to look at was why did successive governments even during the Celtic Tiger years not ring fence this money? First of all they did not. Instead they allowed the system to run down. This was a political decision, a typical neoliberal policy of running down the public sector, cutting or limiting subsidies, reduce spending getting ready to privatise business run by the state. Then as is happening now a white knight comes riding in, saves us and user the arguments that you use,

"This is no way to run water services and helps explain why practically every country except Ireland transferred responsibility for water services provision to a specialist utility provider several decades."

As far as the political focus goes I would like your opinion on whether you believe the State should provide free education or free health care. If it is affirmative then should it not provide water or food for that matter?

Nicholas Byrne said...

@ J.Q
In gen agreement with you, create the crisis by way of running the system down through lack of investment, followed by a public relations campaign aimed at fooling the general public, report after report being carried out, a tactic of kicking the can down the road, with nothing constructively been done.

Then we find that the whole system has arrived as planned, into a crisis status. Then along comes a savior (traitor) on a white horse proclaiming that PRIVATISATION is our only savior. The Ultimate Goal.

Very similar to the so called banking crisis/anglo bailout and the way the crisis was stage managed, to make the poor pay for the rich, that's the bottom line.

Yours Sincerely,

Nicholas Byrne.

Joe Dalton said...

It’s not really about trust. I wouldn’t automatically trust anything they say either. Rather it’s the logic of any one statement or piece of evidence. For example, when Maria Graham stated, in response to a question from John Lahart, that privatisation was never discussed with the troika, I personally have difficultly believing that. I would imagine that privatisation was at least thought about. Possibly they quickly realised that it would be politically unacceptable but still can’t imagine the issue never came up. I was also frustrated by Maria Graham’s failure to give a clear answer to Seamus Healy’s question on commercial payment levels. But when she describes how local authorities dispersed their annual budgets, that made a lot of sense. I think the case for a single national water utility is very clear over having it as a department within each of the 34 local authorities.

I can imagine different departments within the 34 local authorities each lobbying for funds for their own projects, of which water services was one. The layers of bureaucracy between the source of the funds and where the need for expenditure exists increases the likelihood that funding would be captured by some other priority of the day. Indefinite ring fencing of centralised funds for water services just doesn’t tend to happen, not just in Ireland but anywhere. The closer the source of the funds to where the expenditure is needed the better. Given how capital intensive water infrastructure is there will need to be state support for the foreseeable future. But having a revenue stream separate to the state, that would at least contribute to the basic utility running costs, would assist with planning for these essential services.

What I think is unfortunate is that what I would consider sensible changes, to make water services more sustainable and efficient, is regarded as a sinister step towards privatisation. Some may want that, though I suspect you are giving the state too much credit in thinking they always had a grand plan for it.

I have been impressed with Jerry Grant. He has articulated the utility case well, far better than his predecessor John Tierney. Yes, I am taking him at his word regarding District Metering levels but can’t see any reason why he would be dishonest about that.

In terms of education and healthcare I think yes, the state has a duty to provide those services. For education, they should at least provide primary and secondary education for all. I think the case for full state subvention of education beyond that is less clear cut. It’s a question of how much control over our lives we want the state to have. Water, food, how far do we want it to go? Do you want all this and more, electricity, fuel etc. all free at the point of use provided by the state? Do you have such faith in the state to administer all this effectively and efficiently? Should we expand the civil service to deal with all of this? Do you see any role for the private sector or even the semi-state sector given that they operate on a commercial basis?

Enda Craig said...

I concur with the comments of James Quigley in their entirety.

That there is hardly a mention of the taxes levied since 1997 specifically to maintain and plan for future infrastructure of water is disingenuous to say the least.

The running down of the system is an age old ploy and cynical in the extreme. We wring our hands at the crumbling state of the system and cry into the night.. what are we to

Even more cynical and unacceptable is the response ...never mind about the huge amount of money collected, as it now turns out, under false pretences sure we are where we are.

We are at the mercy of gombeens and Mr Dalton would need to be less selective with his comments.