Identify The Potential Exposure
Why do people steal water? Beyond the obvious answer “because they can,” there are multiple reasons why people might be pressured into diverting the metered flow of treated drinking water:
- Personal Greed. Residential customers in various circumstances might be tempted to bypass their water meters for at least part of a billing period. For example:
- Users who take advantage of rate hikes to rationalize that they are just “leveling the playing field” to offset their increased bills by reversing their meter for a portion of their quarterly billing cycle.
- Consumers who have an exceptional need for a high volume of water in a short period of time (e.g., to fill a swimming pool).
- Landlords who are paying increasing water costs that they cannot recoup from their tenants.
- Corporate Greed Or Laziness. This could be a small manufacturer needing a large volume of process water. It could be a contractor that has need for a volume of water at a remote job site. In the case of filling a tank truck from a public hydrant, the actual water diversion might be performed by an employee who does not think of the consequences, because they were directed by a supervisor on what to do.
- People With Easy Access. Even firefighters who have regular access to hydrants have succumbed to the temptation to steal water for personal use.
Use Preemptive Strategies
One of the best ways to identify potential water theft is to have a good idea of what’s going on in the water system or watershed in the first place. As a water-distribution utility, that means installing the right infrastructure to help keep a close eye on where every cubic foot of water that flows through the system is going.
Smart meters enable utilities to capitalize on instant data access through advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which can warn of sudden changes in consumption patterns. Better yet, meters that include an accelerometer can tip off the AMI system when a meter is being removed. One such specially equipped meter can pay dividends by catching water thieves in the act, as noted around the 5:20 mark of this audio recording.
But even utilities that feel they cannot afford the total benefits of a system-wide AMI solution can benefit from installing flow meters in specific areas of their water main infrastructure around large-volume users. That allows them to compare actual flow between those two points vs. the metered readings for all drops coming off the main between two flow meters.
In the case of multi-tenant buildings, it is also easy to remove the temptation for landlords to try to cheat the system. Submetering options that enable individual tenants to pay for water use, based on actual hot and cold water consumption, allow landlords to eliminate the variable of water costs that squeeze their profitability.
Employ The Best Allies
When it comes to water theft, each honest water user in the system is effectively subsidizing the water thieves, so those users have a vested interest in reporting abuses. Include appeals in billing, on utility websites, and through public service announcements, reminding honest water users to protect their own interests by reporting illegal meter tampering or hydrant use without a temporary meter installed. Not only do such actions cost other ratepayers in the form of higher rates, but they can also put utility area residents at risk when illegal use compromises water pressure available to fight nearby fires.
As a byproduct of such public awareness campaigns, illegal water users will be made aware that they are “on notice” and potentially being watched by thousands of water utility customers. It is essentially the same logic behind the “broken windows theory.” That theory proposes that addressing minor aspects of antisocial behavior can pay dividends by discouraging subsequent and larger transgressions due to the perception that someone is watching and enforcing the rules. Use the fact that bad news travels fast to maximum advantage, by monitoring and prosecuting water theft wherever possible and letting those who get caught demonstrate to their associates the risks and costs of being tagged for water theft.
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