Five Billion Gallons
1:15 pm
Tue October 29, 2013

Episode 5: The Technology of Water - Learning More to Use Less

Across Utah, utility crews are an in an uphill battle to maintain and modernize water delivery systems. From the desert community of St. George, to verdant Cache Valley, Utah’s water infrastructure is a complex network of old and new piping. Matt Jensen and Jennifer Pemberton report:

Jennifer Pemberton and Matt Jensen report on how technology is helping Utah cities and residents conserve water.

We don't think much about the maze of pipes below us but water experts say it's time to start looking closer at water infrastructure. The National Association of Water Companies estimates that nearly half of the country’s water lines were in poor shape in 2010 and water experts in Utah say we’re no exception.

Scott Taylor is the water services director for the city of St. George.

"Basically we’re systematically going through and replacing older, undersized lines," he explained. "Recently in the last year or so, we’ve taken a harder look at our aging infrastructure and we’re putting a plan together on what it’s going to cost to replace it. And quite frankly it’s a little scary right now.”

Municipal water lines are stacked up near a construction project in Logan. From the Four Corners to Cache Valley, Utah's water network is in need of constant repair and replacement.
Credit Matt Jensen

Sections of the city’s main water lines go back as early as the 1930s.

"One of the problems we’re faced with is the pipe was put in the ‘40s and it was a 4-inch diameter pipe," said Taylor. "But yet when we cut out a section of that pipe and look at it, there’s so much corrosion and buildup on the inside of the pipe that it’s actually about a 1.5- to 2-inch diameter pipe because of all the buildup on the inside.”

Taylor says it could cost up to $4 million a year for the next 20 years to bring the system up to date. One way the city is keeping better track of leaking and breaking pipes is through GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. By comparing a grid of trouble spots in the city’s water system to a map of the city, Taylor and his crew can see patterns in system breakdowns and focus their attention where it helps the most.

"Before, we were just picking an area of town and replacing pipeline in that area but now we’re able to concentrate on areas that need replacement sooner,” said Taylor.

On the other end of the state in Logan, water engineers are developing a system to help homeowners better track their water use. Residential water meters here are now equipped with small radio transmitters that eliminate the need for a meter reader. Instead, technicians like Jesse Sharp drive through neighborhoods with a special receiver that collects the meter data and processes it for billing.

We hop into a city pickup truck and tour one of several routes, gathering reads on hundreds of meters along the way.

Logan wants to take this technology even further. Instead of driving through town to pick up the signals, the city plans to install receiver/repeater antennae around neighborhoods that collect the data and send it to a central hub. Division manager Mike Roundy says once the system is up and running, users will be able to go online to see daily usage instead of seeing a month’s worth on their utility bill.

"If they see how much they’re using I think it would help out," said Roundy. "Like a leaky toilet. Sometimes people have a leaky toilet and they don’t know anything about it until the end of the month and then they see this huge bill.”

Not only that, but there’s also a strong correlation between the size of your water bill and your incentive to conserve. We have this really great graph that Jeff Niermeyer shared with us. He’s the Director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. The graph shows water usage in Salt Lake City over the course of a year. Niermeyer updates this chart every day and it leaves this really neat record of what the summer was like.

There’s a pretty dramatic drop at the beginning of July after the initial climb you’d expect to see. Niermeyer explains what happened here:

"When I saw what we were headed into in July, it had been hot and dry, and then we started to get a little bit of rain and I think people also started to get their bills so I think there was some customer reaction to those bills.”

This water usage graph is updated daily by Jeff Niermeyer, Director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. The pronounced drop in usage at the beginning of July is due to a little rain, messaging from SLC Public Utilities, and a clear “price signal” that arrived in the form of customers’ first water bill of the summer.
Credit Jeff Niermeyer

This is called “bill shock,” informally, but there’s more to it than that. Niermeyer uses the term “price signal” and he uses these price signals in conjunction with education to send a clear message:

Essentially the more water you use, the more expensive it gets, and that then sends the price signal to our customers that there is a cost incentive for them to water wisely," he says.

Amazingly, after that big drop in July usage stayed down over the rest of the summer.

He explains some of the other dips on the graph that look like they last for a few days at a time.

If I started to plot on here when we’ve had rain," says Niermeyer, "it will correspond to some of these deep valleys.”

Salt Lake City Public Utilities reminds customers all the time to turn off their sprinklers when it rains. If you want a record of the summer storms in Salt Lake City, just check their Facebook page and look at their record of friendly reminders.

It seems a little crazy to use social media to get people to turn off their sprinklers in the rain, but that’s the world we live in. Technology and water are intimately related, from the engineering feats of dams and canals to the streams of data from sensors and satellites, we’re using everything we’ve got to try and do this right. Nature makes it look so easy.

Five Billion Gallons is a production of Utah Public Radio, supported by Penn State Public Media’s “Think Outside the Pipes," radio initiative.