Story appeared in the Water Utility Infrastructure Management (UIM) trade magazine, June 2012
Douglasville, Ga.- Joe Keller has been a plumber for 21 years, but he has never experienced a job quite this complicated. The Golden Estates Mobile Home Community’s 50-acre property boasts three types of water pipes, antiquated maps, few isolation valves and pipe depths vary from 1 to 8 ft. underground.
“Their maps look like Civil War-type documents with faded blue lines and all,” said Keller, owner of K & C Plumbing & Septic Services. “It’s hard not knowing exactly where the lines are and this isn’t nice, easy digging. I asked their manager, ‘You heard of that Disney movie “Holes”? Rent it ‘cause that’s your property.’”
The property’s water loss had gradually worsened over five years’ time. But in February 2011, the Golden Estates Community received a $27,050.95 bill for consuming more than 2 million gallons of water in a 35-day billing cycle. Buckner Group Regional Manager Crissy King said she didn’t know who to call or where to begin. Compared to the same month the previous year, the community was suddenly consuming 560,000 gallons more and spending an excess of $8,100.
She suspected there may be a water leak but there was little evidence to prove it. No one had noticed unusual surface water bubbling up and their pavement and lawns were dry. The private property comprised of 234 lots has a commercial water meter. Management bills residents each month after sub-meters monitor individual usage.
During the most problematic month, 850,000 gallons of water were unaccounted for due to unknown leaks. Three years worth of water usage was flowing from the faucets and underground pipes in a 30 day period. This mystery was costing approximately $15,500 per month and could not be billed to residents.
Contacting a specialist
King initially hired two plumbers to comb the property for leaks, but neither could locate the supposed issue. After becoming more frustrated with the local plumbers’ lack of expertise, she searched the Better Business Bureau online and stumbled across American Leak Detection of Greater Atlanta.
Although the property is quite large, there were only four sections containing isolation valves. Working on one of the four quadrants each day, maintenance workers turned off these valves and individual sub-meters while leak specialists used pressurized gases to determine which section was losing water. Pressurized gas locators were also used due to the unknown location of the lines and size of the system.
During the first service call, technicians shut off the isolation valves and concluded the main meter was leaking approximately 25 gallons of water per minute. Eventually, the major leaks were isolated in the older, rear section of the park. After performing another isolation test, it was determined the front half of the park did not have any underground leaks. Each of the eight fire hydrants were also checked for low water flow rates.
The leaks were caused by a common culprit- aging infrastructure. The community was originally constructed in the mid-1970s and utilizes a combination of PVC, galvanized and polybutylene water pipes.
It was necessary to dig by hand since the water and electrical lines were installed in the same trench and PVC pipes are largely untraceable.
“I had a couple guys out there digging by hand for three weeks,” Keller said. “Sometimes we had dug 8 ft. deep and still didn’t reach a line. Common sense for laying pipes on that property went out the window. It makes you wonder why the last plumber did it like this. I’ve decided that plumbing is just like people- they all have their own quirks and ticks.”
It’s common to have more pipe leakage when the water and electrical lines are installed so close together, according to Jimmy Carter, senior director of corporate field services. A current is released from the electrical line, causing electrolysis or a type of magnetic field on the metal piping.
Tracking water loss totals
Throughout the detection and repair process, King tracked the community’s water usage daily by creating meticulous spreadsheets. These stats enabled her to call the water company each month to make sure the meter amounts matched exactly and weren’t fluctuating.
“Everyone at the water company unfortunately knows me,” King said. “I make my monthly stalker call to Perry and we’re BFF’s now! Once I get their reading and amount on our water usage, I can record that and then we get a rate adjustment once repairs are done.”
Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority Customer Service Representative Perry McKenzie has helped customers tackle unruly water bills and conserve water for 18 years. Homeowners have outlandish water bills all the time, he said. But trying to manage and judge water usage for a community the size of Golden Estates proves to be more challenging.
“This is a community in and of itself,” he said. “I’ve seen my fair share of toilet or irrigation leaks but this is different because people are coming and going all the time and it’s hard to get a consistent track record of water usage. Their occupancy rates always play a role when we see their usage is fluctuating. It’s a complicated thing and hard to judge.”
So far, King has received a $20,000 credit from the water authority in 2011 and she plans to apply for another this year.
The 15-month process to locate the underground lines, find hidden leaks and make necessary repairs is ongoing. Leak technicians continue to install isolation valves throughout the park. This project will divide half the property into thirds and make it easier to shut lines off for future repair. More leaks have started to surface as this process unfolds because adding pressure and turning the lines on and off stresses the aging pipes.
“The leaks are becoming more prominent now that the lines were drained,” said King. “We’ve seen our usage shoot up steadily between 1-4,000 gallons a day. Trust me; I know when our usage goes up even a small amount.”
Golden Estates management lost more than $100,000 a year in 2011 and $250,000 over three years due to hidden leaks. In the first four months of 2012, they have already saved $50,000 in water fees and are consuming 45 percent less water than the previous year.
“My bosses are very happy we’re spending the time, effort and money to address this issue now instead of down the road,” King said. “The money we’re spending to hire American Leak Detection is worth every penny and nothing compared to the amount we’re saving from water loss and rebates. We tried other companies but we finally found a good one who can help us.”