Cities and states around the country have announced temporary suspensions of all utility service shutoffs due to non-payment. As of this writing more than 90 cities have suspended water shutoffs. San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Birmingham, and Pittsburgh are just a few municipalities that have publicly announced shutoff moratoriums for 60 days or more, as well as private water companies such as American Water. Government officials recognize the critical role that water and electric services play in maintaining public health, particularly in light of a global viral pandemic which has already infected hundreds of thousands of people.
It is widely recognized that one of the best ways to protect people from Coronavirus transmission includes frequent hand washing. This is nearly impossible to do without a constant supply of water. While hand sanitizers can be somewhat effective in preventing viral transmission, supplies of these substances have been difficult to find due to recent demand spikes. In addition, sanitizers do not eliminate all microbes on your hands and have been proven to be less effective than simple soap and water.
While shutoff moratoriums are obviously the right thing to do for public health, these decisions will have significant financial impacts on both public and private utility revenues which could have long-term consequences for operations even when the Coronavirus eventually abates. Lost water utility revenue from delinquencies and non-payment costs the industry at least $500 million each year. This is money that could be spent investing in system rehabilitation to improve service quality and reliability. Few utilities can afford these types of losses on a regular business, and shutoffs have proven effective enforcement tools to ensure payment of delinquent bills.
“Lost water utility revenue from delinquencies and non-payment costs the industry at least $500 million each year.”
Yet shutoffs themselves are expensive for utilities. Truck rolls are estimated to cost between $250 – $500 per incident, and these fees may even be higher for rural systems which cover wide geographic areas and field staff need to drive hours in each direction just to reach a customer location. While utilities routinely charge reconnect fees to customers, they rarely cover the cost of the shut-off, yielding a net financial loss to the water supplier.
Beside the cost and inconvenience of rolling trucks to shut off delinquent customers, this practice also puts utility workers at risk. It is common for field staff members to receive threats of violence during the act of shutting off water service, particularly when the water meter resides on the property of the customer.
So what options do water utilities have to ensure reliable bill payment, protect employee safety, reduce operating costs, and ensure public health? Not surprisingly there is technology readily available that can accomplish all of these objectives. Remote smart valves allow utility managers to wireless turn water services on and off from the safety of their offices. In addition, best-in-class valve solutions also allow for a reduced flow mode. This option lowers water pressure and creates inconvenience for the delinquent customer without completely terminating all water services. Customers can still wash their hands and cook, but routine activities such as showering, dish washing, and clothes cleaning are impaired which provides the enforcement needed to ensure payment collection without compromising public health and safety.
“Remote smart valves allow utility managers to wireless turn water services on and off from the safety of their offices.”
Many water utility managers who have contemplated the use of remote shut-off valve technology in the past have demurred from investing due to concerns around the cost and hassle of building and maintaining a fixed wireless network to deliver the wireless signal necessary for the system to function. Fortunately, modern cost-effective cellular technologies are now available that support remote shut-off valves and don’t require any infrastructure investment on the part of the water utility.
In many cases, the total cost to install remote valve control is quickly offset by the reduced cost of shutoffs and the increase in payment performance. Over the lifetime of the remote shut-off valve, up to 20-years if operated according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, the devices pay for themselves many times over.
“The total cost to install remote valve control is quickly offset by the reduced cost of shutoffs and the increase in payment performance.”
The question for water suppliers remains: What to do once the Coronavirus runs its course? If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the reminder that water is critical for sustained public health. The consequences of ignoring this fact will be more costly and painful than finding long-term, equitable and sustainable solutions. The technologies are already available, we just need the political will to look beyond the short-term, and invest in solutions that will serve our communities beyond the crisis of the moment.