Leaks may be fixed, but opposition to meters still watertight

Despite yielding useful data, meters are immersed in toxic debate over water charges

Individual domestic meters have been shown to aid the process of fixing a dilapidated water piping system. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells

Individual domestic meters have been shown to aid the process of fixing a dilapidated water piping system. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells

 

The first comparative data on water use will be a comfort to those who support the installation of domestic meters, but it will do little to move detractors.

Because they are synonymous with the now-toxic debate around water charges, the placement of meters outside Irish homes is problematic – even when they can be a proven remedy to the millions of litres of clean water that seep wastefully into the ground.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, one of the foremost agitators against the doomed charging regime, said the CSO figures that demonstrate progress in fixing the supply are welcome but do not represent the only solution.

“I still don’t think it amounts to some overwhelming case for individual metering,” he said.

Instead, he favours an approach used in other countries, where district metering systems identify areas where leaks are a problem.

“They are then able to zone in using various sonar devices to find out where the domestic leaks are. They can do that already without domestic metering being used,” he said.

“That money would be better spent putting district meters everywhere and then investing in having teams of people to go through districts and find unusually high consumption.”

Distaste

Mr Murphy readily admits his reasoning is partly motivated by distaste for a domestic metering infrastructure that could, one day, facilitate household charges. But, he believes, it equally comes down to a debate over the most efficient and cost-effective way to fix the network.

The division over metering will likely last for as long as water is piped into private homes

In its April 2017 report, the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services recommended the water utility “place a high priority on investment aimed at ensuring that district water metering, existing infrastructure and modern technology” be used to effectively reduce waste.

In the aftermath of the political storm around proposed charges, the domestic metering programme ended in January 2017 with 884,000 homes (60 per cent) fitted. They are still being fitted in new builds and in major renovations.

The division over metering will likely last for as long as water is piped into private homes. In the meantime, individual domestic meters have been shown to aid the process of fixing a dilapidated system.

The detail is intimidating: 63,000km of pipes with 12.5 million individual joints, and at an average age of 70 years.

Irish Water credits the recent declines in domestic use to a combination of its own repair works, home owners fixing internal leaks and individual behaviour.

Clean water

As it points out, Ireland needs 1.6 billion litres of clean water every day, and the economy is growing quickly. Domestic meters have helped it locate leaks that were once arduous to unearth; repair programmes were based on “time-consuming and labour-intensive” sampling.

The new technology quickly locates “unusual water patterns”. In 2015, the €51 million “First Fix Free” scheme was launched to allow authorities get in and plug the holes, the ongoing results of which are shown by the CSO data.

Under the scheme, Irish Water notifies customers when they detect a suspected leak within the boundary of their property. Those traced to the external supply pipe serving a property are fixed free of charge while internal leaks are for the homeowner to fix.

“Utilising meter-read data to identify the most significant leaks has proven key to operating the First Fix Leak Repair Scheme efficiently,” it said. As a result, it fixed 8,097 leaks, the largest of which were done first, with estimated savings of 105 million litres of water per day.

“This is enough to supply Galway city and county for a day,” Irish Water said. As of June last year, the total cost had amounted to €21 million.