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.”