Plugging the “leaks”

Published 2:14 pm Thursday, September 27, 2018

AHOSKIE – Facing appearances before the Town Council over water leaks and therefore potentially high meter readings which have led to billing inquiries, Ahoskie hopes implementation of a Leak Adjustment Policy will alleviate some of the confusions, not to mention the headaches.

Marty Northcott, the town’s Water Meter Technician, appeared before Council at their regular September monthly meeting and explained the new policy.

Northcott began by explaining to the Council members that the town’s leak report system is checked thrice weekly (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) from a pair of sources. The first source is a high usage report generated through the town’s investment in FlexNet software which shows usage of water above a customer’s “normal” 24-hour usage period, while the second alert program is the Analytics Broken Pipe which shows usage of customers who have a 24-hour flow-rate within a defined time period (12 a.m. – 11 p.m.).

“We get it from two sources,” Northcott said. “(FlexNet) is the main one, while the hot water one generates a customer’s usage over a 24 hour period is where it runs.”

The technician went on to say if a customer is flagged on either of the two leak reports, then the town’s Normal Leak Protocol for both residential and commercial customers goes into effect.

“They will receive a door hanger alert from me and in addition a high usage postcard is mailed to the customer from the town’s Utility Billing Clerk,” he stated.

Northcott said there will now be a change in policy for customers responding to the door hander and/or the postcard.

“This is where it’s new,” Northcott noted. “If somebody doesn’t contact us within 24 hours and they use more than 500 gallons of water as being an excessive period, then we’re going to go out and actually temporarily cut their water service off until they come back and let us know they are aware of the excess. That will apply to an owner or to a renter.”

Mayor Jimmie Rowe also pointed out that there are two ways for the owner/renter to acknowledge the leak, both through the technical and the town’s Utilities department.

“By the way,” chimed in Rowe, “not only would you be getting this, but it goes into downtown also, right?”

Another new leakage alert, Northcott said, would be the Excessive Usage Protocol.

“If it’s 2,000 gallons over a 24-hour period, the customer’s water will automatically be cut off without any discussion,” he said. “I will go out and cut it off because it’s going to blow their water bill sky-high.”

Northcott noted that there will be some exceptions.

“Obviously restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, nursing homes, etc., you can’t really go in there and just cut them off,” he said. “Basically, I’ll go in there and tell them I’ve (found) a leak, and I’ll try to give them an adjustment form that shows what their usage is if it’s high. That will be done face-to-face, with no question anywhere.”

Northcott made clear that he will make every attempt on his visit to make physical contact with a customer before leaving a warning door hanger.

“Sometimes they’re home, and if they’re there I’ll knock,” he acknowledged. “In any case, we would still leave a door hanger.”

Northcott said within a one-month period the number of door hangers left with water customers has gone up from 40 to about 60, commercial and residential.

Council members also asked if the Utilities Department had ‘repeat’ customers.

“That’s part of the reason we’re coming up with this,” he stated. “We’ve had a few who may not be ignoring it, they just may have understood the severity of it, and after maybe the second time they have come in to talk about it.”

Town Manager Kerry McDuffie complemented Northcott and his team, noting that despite 40 to 60 notices that go out, only about two or three water customers a year come before the Town Council to publicly complain.

“You guys are doing a great job of handling this, and keeping the complaints down,” said McDuffie.

Several Council members acknowledged they were unaware of the precautions the town’s technicians were taking, in lieu of the most recent customers who have appeared before the body to complain.

“If you put it on a seven-day-a-week basis, this is about five a day,” said Councilman Matt Brady. “On a five-day-a-week basis it’s eight a day; almost one-and-a-quarter (of your quota) per day – and that’s with you having other responsibilities to take care of.”

Northcott presented Council with a one page copy of both his FlexNet and Analytics Leak Reports.

“It’ll just show you the number of occurrences, how many times they’ve had a broken pipe, straight run over a four-hour period, and the meter never stops,” he asserted in his Broken Pipe report. “Some are obvious because (one named subdivision) has a master meter that supplies the whole place, about 80 apartments. Obviously, the laundromats you have to keep an eye on, too.”

The FlexNet report is more detailed and the main number he said he looks at is the one that shows usage measured from the past 24 hours.

“I’m able to break these down by the meter ID’s, names, addresses, and all that stuff,” he explained. “It’s not a guess. What the meter says is what it is. The meter transmits every four hours and reads every hour.”

Northcott said the readings are transmitted from the ground to the tanks (Ahoskie’s North and South tanks), and then transmits from the tanks to Town Hall where it then goes by the cloud (database) where it is then outsourced to billing out of town.

The technician also said he had sent off for possible correction about three water meters to check for discrepancies in readings, but said they all came back with no errors.

“We’ve had these new meters in the ground now coming up on three years now,” Northcott noted.

Northcott said he physically reads the meter if water gets above two or three inches above the transmitter atop the device. Other culprits that call for face-to-face readings are vehicles covering the transmitters, and even fallen leaves.

“Every month you have to go read a few manually,” he said. “But overall, it’s a nice system, and we’re one of the few towns in northeastern North Carolina that has this.”

Northcott concluded his presentation with an invitation to any of the Council members for a ride-along, or to come and personally show them the readings display on a laptop computer.

Satisfied with the presentation, Councilman Charles Freeman made a motion to adopt the leak adjustment policy as part of the Council’s September consent agenda, seconded by Brady, and the vote for approval was unanimous.