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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Energy Efficiency in Action

Energy Efficiency in Action
Small systems across the country are challenged to raise revenue in order to pay for the infrastructure and water treatment upgrades necessary to meet stricter water quality regulations. However, what if this revenue shortcoming could be made-up over time within a utility itself, sometimes without raising rates? Implementing an energy audit and then applying cost-efficient energy-saving strategies may be just the ticket.

An audit or self-assessment can help staff understand how their utility uses energy as well as the impact energy-intensive processes such as pumping and aeration has on overall usage. The EPA offers a range of tools available to help with this process, including an energy use assessment spreadsheet tool.

Once an audit is complete, utilities can develop a program to reduce energy costs. RCAP suggests focusing on these five areas: benchmarking, lighting systems, HVAC systems, pump efficiency and wastewater treatment. According to Ohio RCAP, potential energy-cost reductions can range from 6 to 62 percent, with an average of less than a 1-year simple payback for communities that are actively using energy audits and energy-reduction programs. 

It is always inspiring to learn about energy-saving strategies used by other systems. The wastewater plant in Copperas Cove, Texas, for example, installed new energy-efficient blowers, a modern aeration control scheme, finer screening at the headworks and a maintenance-friendly air diffusion system in order to cut their energy costs. Since their improvements, total average monthly energy costs at the plant have dropped by nearly 25%—from $22,000 per month to $16,000.

And this video shows how a utility in Evansville, IN was able to upgrade its wastewater plant without raising rates. In addition, the city became the first in the country to generate clean energy using FOG, or fats, oils and grease. 

A good way to brush up on how to operate efficient small utilities is by reviewing RCAPs planning and resource guide or the EPA's Strategies for Saving Energy at Public Water Systems or Florida Rural Water's Energy Reduction Techniques for Small and Medium Systems. In addition, this handbook from South Dakota DENR guides small systems step-by-step through the auditing process and explains how to develop an energy conservation program, identify and implement energy conservation measures (ECMs), and monitor the progress and success of the implementation program.

Study Investigates Water Affordability

Study Investigates Water Affordability
A recent National Science Foundation study on water affordability found that roughly 13.8 million U.S. households could not afford to pay their water bill in 2014. The study found that while access to water has remained relatively affordable until recently, water rates have increased around 41 percent in just the past seven years. Should the rate hikes continue at this pace, according to the report, more than one-third of all U.S. households—35.6 percent—will be unable to afford running water by 2022.

One American city, Philadelphia, has taken measures to address this challenge through a new program—the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). Enrollees' monthly water bills are not based on consumption but rather set as a percentage of  household income and size. Eligible households are provided with water conservation education along with free leak detection tests and low-flow plumbing fixtures. 

Using data collected from income-based gas & electric utility programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado, consultants are predicting that Philadelphia's water department will see a net gain in revenue as a result of lowering the rates and increasing compliance. Perhaps this new approach can be a model for others to follow in addressing a widening water affordability gap.

Interested in assessing affordability at your utility? Here is an easy-to-use Excel tool courtesy of UNC Environmental Finance Center to assess the relative affordability of water & wastewater rates using multiple metrics. Interested in learning more about customer assistance programs (CAPs), how to fund them, legal hurdles and their expanding importance? Listen to this podcast featuring Stacey Isaac Berahzer from The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (EFC).