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GWW eager to resist water pipe freeze

Some unsuspecting customers in southern Australia wake up in mid-winter with no water, a result of frozen pipes and water meters due to sub-zero temperatures, creating considerable strain on resources for water service providers in these regions.

As part of the Water Source asset management series, we spoke to Glenn Harris, Greater Western Water Operational Customer & Delivery Improvement Manager, about how frozen meters become an issue and what the utility does to help customers avoid the problem.

Harris said that while domestic water meters aren’t usually an issue for many water utilities, frozen meters can create a lot of trouble for customers and service providers during winter.

“From a customer perspective, it can be very, very disruptive. Imagine waking up in the morning to go to work, going to take a shower, or use the bathroom, and there’s no water,” he said.

“Some customers assume their water must be off because of an issue in their area and get straight on the phone to the water authority; they don’t realise that water meters can get frozen over.

“The issue arises because the majority of water meters are located above ground, which subjects them to the elements. There are some areas, especially in Greater Western Water’s outer regions, that are highly prone to frost and sub-zero temperatures.

“It’s on us to raise awareness — both prevention and then safely defrosting when the problem has occurred … and we have lots of resources to help.

“Ideally the customer should wait for frozen meters and pipes to thaw naturally as the temperature rises. If the customer cannot wait, pour lukewarm water over the frozen meter or pipe. They should never use boiling or hot water as this increases the chance of pipes splitting.”

Dealing with disruption

While frozen pipes and meters can be very disruptive to the customer, it can also be very time consuming to the water authority, Harris said.

“When we get a really bad frost occurring, we’ll get an influx of calls from customers first thing in the morning saying they’ve got no water, or that their meter/assembly has water flowing out of it due to ice expanding and breaking the meter,” he said.

“As the water authority we need to respond to these calls and take time to explain the reasons why this occurs and educate our customers about how best to deal with the issue, now and going forward.

“Further, customers often have questions: why is this happening to me?”

Harris said responding to customers and ensuring they understand the issue takes time and cannot be resolved by one phone call, especially when there’s a cold snap and lots of people are calling the utility’s operations control centre.

“This puts a lot of pressure on our resources, particularly our staff managing the after-hours line and our in-house operations control centre. Normally, we don’t get a lot of calls overnight, unless there’s a large incident occurring. We usually only need one or two people on the switch,” he said.

“But when we are getting a high number of calls occurring at the same time due to cold weather, this can cause delayed response times for our customers. We aim to answer faults and emergency phone calls within 30 seconds, but this isn’t always achievable when lots of people are calling in.

“This frustrates the customer, who is trying to get to work, or get their kids organised for school. It can cause a lot of stress.”

Financial repercussions

Aside from the impact on customers and resources, frozen meters and resulting damage can create considerable pressure on utility budgets.

“In the instance where the customer tried to defrost the water meter and it breaks, we need to go and fix or replace that meter. It’s the water authority’s responsibility to repair the assembly and replace the meter,” Harris said.

“Standard cost for a domestic 20 mm meter is around $50 and approximately $200 to repair the meter assembly and associated fittings on the water authority’s side only. But there are meters and meter assemblies that are a lot larger and replacing them costs a lot more and comes with other levels of complexity.

“We might need to spend $50 per meter to fix 30 or 40 meters. It might not sound like much, but when you have to do this a few times a week, it can have a considerable impact on our operational and capital expenditure budgets. Especially considering that this issue is definitely avoidable.”

Communication is key

When it comes to preventing frozen meters, Harris said communication is key.

“We need our customers to be aware that if they have a meter above ground and live in a frost-prone area, it needs to be covered or there’s a good chance their water supply will be affected when the temperatures drop,” he said.

“It’s important for customers to know that, if they have an above ground meter assembly, with copper pipes and water meter, it’s got the potential to freeze.

“We suggest that customers with this type of metering arrangement cover their assembly with a plastic box or insulate it with some form of material. Whatever the customer decides to use, it’s just important that they don’t hinder access for meter reading and maintenance activities.”

Harris said communicating with customers about this issue is part of the utility’s annual communication strategy.

“Similar to bushfire season, we distribute information to customers about the impact of extreme weather events to their water supply,” he said.

“We have a range of videos on our website and we provide regular updates on social media during the relevant season. We also advertise locally across the community and issue fact sheets to every customer we respond to about frozen meter issues.

“Prevention is key. Customers that live in these areas need to be aware that this can be an issue, what to expect and the steps to take if it does occur.

“Trying to defrost a meter quickly with hot water can cause damage; it’s best to stop the meter assembly from freezing in the first place.”