The water diaries
How much water do we use – and how much will it cost us once our first bills arrive? As the regulator asks for public submissions, two families install meters for a week
Bath time: Grace Robbins keeps an eye on how much water she is using to wash her mermaid. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Cash flow: Hilary Lemass and Shane Harte with their children, Oscar and Iseult. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
On a cold, wet evening, myself and a water engineer stand peering into an inspection chamber on the footpath outside my house. I might as well be looking into a field, but Chris Dunne of Cheetah Telemetry knows what he’s about. We can see the plastic water main with its blue stopcock and a kind of junction box. He reaches down and turns off the supply, no long metal key required. In fact he carries very little specialised equipment.
“What’s that you have there?” I ask. “A screwdriver,” he replies. Well, it is dark.
“Turn on a tap now and see if she’s stopped,” he says. She is.
Next he unscrews a fitting on top of the junction box and replaces it with a meter manufactured by Hydrometer in Germany, one of two models approved by Irish Water. He turns the mains back on, and the numbers start to turn.
We want to fit another meter next door, but there’s a problem. “It’s too high,” says Dunne, whose company specialises in bulk water metering, which is to say monitoring the flow between the reservoir and the street. “The cover comes over the level of the path. That’ll have to be dug out again.”
Fitting a water meter to my house took about a minute. What about the two hours Irish Water say it’ll take? “That’s if they have to dig up the path, find the stopcock, fit the meter, check it and then make good after them,” he says.
In fact, some industry insiders believe the contracts for fitting meters are too tight. The three main contractors – GMC/Sierra, J Murphy & Sons and Coffey Northumbrian – are expecting a three-man team to fit 20 meters a day.
The new world of metered water we entered at midnight on December 31st, 2013, when control of the water system passed from local authorities to Irish Water, is a whirlpool of statistics.
There’s the €50 million the company spent on consultants. There’s the €2 billion Irish Water says it will save the State by 2026. Which is countered by the €2 billion the Economic and Social Research Institute says the company has paid over the odds for staff. (There will be 4,300, and only 1,700 are needed, according to the ESRI.)
And that’s before the issue of how much the ordinary consumer will pay is decided. Industry sources say it’ll work out at between €100 and €300 per household per year.
If €300 is correct, Irish water will be relatively cheap by European standards. The Belgian city of Ghent is the most expensive in Europe for water, charging €5.75 per 1,000 litres, according to Global Water Intelligence. The average Irish household of four people is expected to use 219,000 litres a year. In Ghent the bill for that volume of water would be more than €1,200 a year.
The decision will rest with the Commission for Energy Regulation. “Issues like the rates and tariffs, and whether there will be a fixed charge like there is for energy, have yet to be decided,” according to its spokesman Andrew Ebrill. “We will be holding a public consultation on metering from April and another one on rates from June. We will be making a decision by August. The charges will be introduced from October 1st.”
The metering programme continues at the rate of 27,000 meters per month. There are 1.2 million homes to be metered, but only 480,000 will have been done by the time householders receive their first bills, in early 2015, according to the Department of the Environment. The remaining 720,000 households will receive estimated or flat-rate bills.
The cost of installing meters will be €539 million. This will be passed on to domestic users gradually, over as much as 20 years, says John Tierney, the head of Irish Water.
The first meters were installed last August on Rockfield Grove estate in Maynooth, Co Kildare. There was much in the way of corporate self-congratulation but little enthusiasm from the residents. “I have never checked the meter or looked to see how much we’re using. I think very few people will go out to lift the cover” over the meter, says one of them, Glenn Millar.
“It’s not a talking point among the neighbours,” he adds. “Nobody has mentioned it, to be honest. It’s something that stays in the back of your mind until you have to hand over the money.”
The Commission for Energy Regulation is inviting submissions on the form and shape of water tariffs . Details from email@example.com . Timelines and policy documents are at cer.ie
Water diary 1
Shane Harte, Hilary Lemass and their two children, five-year-old Oscar and three-year-old Iseult , kept a record of how much water they used in a week.
Day 1: 177 litres
Day 2: 193 litres
Day 3: 190 litres
Day 4: 200 litres
Day 5: 322 litres
Day 6: 648 litres
Day 7: 210 litres
Total: 1,940 litres
Based on the official estimate of 150 litres per person per day, Shane, Hilary and their family should be using 600 litres per day, or 4,200 litres a week. Their actual total was less that half that.
They kept a diary : number of lavatory flushes (six or seven), washing- machine and dishwasher cycles (usually one of each per day), baths, showers, and sink and kettle fills.
“I was surprised at how little we were using,” said Hilary. “It was an interesting experiment, just to see what our usage was. For instance, I was amazed how much a shower uses.”
The figures show a spike on day six, when the water usage was three times that of most other days. “My sister and her two teenagers stayed over,” explained Hilary, “and they all had showers. I did find myself being aware of how long they were taking in the shower.”
Shane, who works for the treatment company Rainsafe Water, knew about the 150-litre estimate. “We’re quite high by European standards,” he said. “The Germans are down at about 120 litres per person per day. I was definitely curious to see what our totals would be like, and I was surprised to see we were way below what you’d expect.”
Neither Shane nor Hilary found that having a meter ticking away outside changed their usage habits. “You definitely become a little more conscious,” said Hilary, “but I knew we weren’t wasting much anyway.”
They agree with the principle of paying for water but worry that the tariff regime may be unfair. “If there’s a standing charge, it might be unfair on people living alone,” said Hilary.
They will definitely be more careful with water when the bills start arriving. “We may have to think twice about the paddling pools in the garden this summer,”
Hilary said, with a laugh.
Water diary 2
Dave Robbins also kept a water diary for a week, with his wife, Fran Power, eight-year-old daughter, Grace, and dog, Pipsi.
Day 1: 144 litres
Day 2: 138 litres
Day 3: 123 litres
Day 4: 169 litres
Day 5: 270 litres
Day 6: 236 litres
Day 7: 152 litres
Total: 1,232 litres
The figures for our family are also lower than Irish Water estimates. Over the week we used considerably less that the 3,150 litres we might be expected to use.
We had boiled more kettles (four or five a day) than Hilary and Shane (just one per day), but otherwise usage was similar. We also had a couple of showers per day and put on one dishwasher and one washing-machine cycle. Our figures spiked on day five, when my wife’s relations came over for a family celebration. They were higher on the day after, too, when we were doing all the washing-up.
Giving our daughter and our dog (separate) baths did not seem to affect our figures unduly. “I was surprised at how low our figures were,” says Fran. “But maybe it’s because it’s the middle of winter and we’re not out watering the garden or washing the car.”
Irish Water expects usage to drop by 10-15 per cent once billing starts. Naturally, water charges have a greater effect on consumption in countries where the charges are highest. “I think it would be very useful to have a display inside the house,” says Fran, “so you could see how much you were using without going outside and lifting the cover.”
Irish Water will be able to read our meter (left) remotely via a clip-on radio transmitter. It’s possible to have a display in the house that reads the same radio transmission, but there are no plans to install these as part of the metering programme.
Instead, Irish Water expects that the usage figures on their quarterly bills will give customers the information they need to take steps to reduce the amount of water they consume.