Aqua Delivers New, Clean Water Supply to Families in Wake Forest

Aqua North Carolina turned on the tap last year to provide clean drinking water to two dozen homes in a Wake Forest neighborhood where homeowners’ private wells were found to be contaminated by solvents. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached out to Aqua to connect these homes to our public drinking water supply, and we expect to connect additional homes. 

In 2005, a homeowner’s private well was first identified as having been contaminated with a volatile organic compound (VOC) called TCE. Since then, additional private wells in the area were found to have been contaminated. Federal and state environmental officials believe two former circuit board assembly companies are the source of the contamination.

Aqua is proud that we could help these families get water that is regularly tested and complies with state and federal health standards. This situation underscores the benefits to customers of public water systems like Aqua’s. Unlike private well owners, Aqua must adhere to federal and state laws that require consistent and frequent tests for contaminants.

Aqua has been providing water and wastewater utility service in North Carolina for more than 30 years and serves about 84,000 homes in 52 counties.

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Ebb and Flow: Managing the Aging Water Infrastructure

All across America we have uninhibited access to clean and safe water. We often take this for granted because it is so accessible. Think of all the things you and your family use water for each and every day.

At the end of the day, it is estimated that the average American family uses 300 gallons of water at the cost of just one penny per gallon. Our water infrastructure is what makes all of this possible. However, it’s quickly becoming clear that our infrastructure is headed for trouble.

Most underground water pipes are expected to last up to 100 years. Unfortunately, America has over 700,000 miles of aging water pipes, including many of which are still in service well beyond their useful life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes the necessary repairs to these water pipes are projected to cost $384 billion. Funding these repairs is complicated by the fact that the water industry is the most fragmented within our nation’s utility industry.

 

Currently we have 53,000 individual water systems that serve relatively small populations. The EPA found that more than 83 percent of them supply fewer than 3,300 people. Municipalities own the majority of these systems, but nearly 15 percent are privately owned. Both types of water system owners struggle to maintain their systems due to tight budgets and limited resources. Many of these water systems are falling behind because they cannot afford upgrades and/or they don’t have the resources to meet the increasingly rigid environmental and health regulations.

The good news is there are at least two solutions that can help get our water infrastructure where it needs to be. One such solution is a public-private partnership (PPP). Through this type of partnership, private funds are more readily available to municipalities to update infrastructure and invest in improvements and renovations to their aging water systems. Even better, the funds brought in through a PPP benefit more than just the water companies and consumers.

For example, the municipality of West Chester, PA entered a PPP back in 1996 when they were faced with needing to drastically increase water rates to afford a $15 million upgrade. They sold their system for $25 million and used the revenue to make the necessary upgrade, as well as retire existing debt and fund a desperately needed parking garage.

The second possible solution is an operations and maintenance (O&M) contract. An O&M contract focuses more on the day-to-day required maintenance of water systems. The private entity in this contract takes on routine tasks necessary to operate and maintain the utility in exchange for a service fee. One continuing success story is in Horsham, PA. The Horsham Water Authority began an O&M contract in 1997 that they have renewed annually since then. They’ve also expanded it to include additional services like water treatment, meter operations and system maintenance and repairs.

Maintaining clean and safe water is not just a goal, it’s a necessity. However, the government cannot bear all the costs of making these necessary repairs, nor should it have to. Teaming up with private water companies will save our infrastructure and keep clean water flowing to our taps. 

More Information: 

Keep It Flowing: Maintaining Municipal Water Systems

More PPP success stories here

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Why Water Mains Break

One of the biggest concerns for water utilities during extremely hot or cold weather is water main breaks. Water mains are expected to last a long time – as long as 100 years in many cases.  But with manymiles of pipe buried underground, it’s reasonable to expect a particular section of pipe will fail or break at some point. The challenge for water utilities is to work proactively to minimize the number of breaks and to respond effectively when a main does break.

While the oldest water mains were made of wood, by the late 1800s, a variety of iron pipe was being used to construct water distribution systems. Common iron varieties included cast and galvanized in the early part of the 20th Century, with galvanized used primarily for smaller diameter pipe. Cast iron pipe was used until the late 1950s when stronger, more flexible ductile iron pipe became common. Plastic pipe, including Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) became common in the 1970s. The primary difference between these two plastic pipes is that PVC is stiffer than HDPE, which is more flexible.

Even though pipe is expected to last for decades, that doesn’t mean it won’t break at some point. While it is impossible to predict specific pipe breaks, we know that environmental conditions are a major factor in water main breaks.

In the northern and northeast areas of the country where winters are more extreme, cold soils and cold water combine to add stress to pipes, which can—and often do—result in breaks. Iron, like all metals, contracts as temperatures drop. This problem is more common when the source water is surface water (rivers and lakes). These waters are  significantly affected by air temperature and can drop to near freezing in the winter. A temperature difference of just 10 degrees in water or air temperatures can cause pipes to contract or expand. Additional stress inside and outside the pipe occurs as temperatures near the freezing point, making the pipe vulnerable to breakage. Water temperature changes more slowly than air temperature changes so the impact of cold water on pipes can cause breakage to take place as many as a couple days after temperatures freeze. Water systems with groundwater sources (wells) have more stable water temperatures because the water is not affected by air temperatures, and therefore, not as significantly impacted.

Just as pipes are adversely affected by cold weather conditions, they are also affected by severe heat. In some groundwater systems in the southern and southwestern states, the soils are like sponges and hold lots of water. However, during extended periods of hot temperature when high demands for water increases water withdrawal from the aquifers, the soil becomes very dry. In these conditions, the soil contracts and subsides, pulling away from the pipe and diminishing support for the water main. The absence of support for the main can cause it to break.  This particular problem led the City of Houston, Texas to begin to convert its groundwater supply to surface water.

Although older mains are generally more susceptible to breaks, breaks can occur on newer mains. This is most likely the result of improper installation or a manufacturing issue with that particular section of pipe. By examining trends in water main breaks over time, a utility is better able to identify categories of pipe that are more prone to breaks, and thus proactively target that pipe for replacement. Aqua employs such tactics in determining which mains to replace. By the end of 2013, Aqua expects to have spent $170 million of its $325 million capital improvement program on water main replacement and associated work.

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Water Expands When It Freezes. Your Pipes Do Not.

 

There’s nothing worse than a burst pipe in the dead of winter. With snow falling and temperature dropping to a 20-year low, now is the time to protect your pipes from the ‘Polar Vortex’. Fortunately, Aqua has some simple tips that you can do to lessen the impact of freezing temperature and protect your home.

Remember, plumbing located against exterior walls in unheated basements and crawl spaces is particularly vulnerable to the cold and at the highest risk of freezing or breaking.

Eliminate Drafts. Close crawl spaces, vents and doors. Repair broken or cracked basement windows. Make sure basement doors and windows close tightly.

Insulate Pipes. Be sure pipes in unheated parts of your property, including crawl spaces, are protected by properly installing heat tape or pipe insulation found at most hardware and plumbing supply stores.

Remove Outdoor Hoses. Exterior faucets and hoses are first to freeze. Remove for the winter season.

And when it’s really cold, 10 degrees or less, or you aren’t home, leave a thing stream of water running from at least one tap farthest from the water meter; open cabinet doors below sinks to allow warm home air to better circulate (always remove cleaners and chemicals to keep out of reach of small children).

If your pipes freeze and you can locate the frozen area, open the nearest tap, then use a hand-held hair dryer (blow dryer) or heat tape to thaw the area. . Hold the dryer about six inches from the pipe and move the dryer slowly back and forth. If this method fails after a reasonable period of time, call your plumber immediately.

For additional information, contact Aqua at 877.987.2782 or visit www.AquaAmerica.com.

 

 

 

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Rate Cases Made Simple

Have you ever wondered what’s behind an Aqua rate increase? If the “when?” and “why?” are lost on you, you’re not alone. Believe it or not, there is a rhyme and reason behind Aqua’s rate cases, and there are checks in place to make sure that each case is fair and warranted. Did you know that in most states, you cannot file for a rate increase until after you invest money into your water system? For Aqua that means first we must invest the capital for improvements in infrastructure, new tanks or plant upgrades.

Only after these improvements are made can Aqua request to raise rates to recover our investment. Aqua cannot request a rate increase to finance a future project according to the regulations of most states. When putting the case together, Aqua must determine a “test year.” This is a one-year financial snapshot of the system in which Aqua is filing the case. Each state has a regulating body — the Public Utility Commission (PUC) — that ensures the increase is both fair and warranted.

Once it decides to file a rate increase, Aqua must compile the proper paperwork and notify our state PUC that it plans to request a rate increase. Aqua must provide the necessary documentation supporting the investments made in the test year that provide just cause for the increase.

Improvements often include:

 • Water main replacements 

• Loops to improve water pressure

 • New hydrant installation to support the local fire department

 • Added tanks for increased capacity 

• Upgraded tanks to improve water quality.

Most state commissions require water utilities to notify their customers once they file a rate request. These notices can take the form of a bill stuffer, an ad, a postcard or a letter. These notices must contain instructions on how to intervene. Customers or other third parties who wish to formally block a rate increase for any particular reason are known as “interveners.” Interveners must file with the commission for this status.

After the request is filed, Aqua compiles all of the official paperwork, supporting documents and supporting numbers for the PUC. Once all necessary documents are filed, the PUC then has several months to rule on the case. During the assessment process, the PUC conducts public hearings, which allow customers, elected officials, stakeholders and interveners to voice their concerns. Information gathered in public hearings is taken into account by the PUC as they look to make a decision on the rate request.

Once the PUC has analyzed Aqua’s request, it rules on whether to grant the proposed rate increase. The PUC can grant or deny the new proposed rates. Additionally, the PUC can grant Aqua a rate increase, but at a different level than what was proposed. In some cases, it will grant increases for some but not all of the items requested. It is important for the company to demonstrate that all of our expenses and infrastructure improvements are just and reasonable.

Once the request is approved, Aqua usually is required to notify our customers of their new rates and when they will take effect. These notices are usually in the form of a paid newspaper advertisement, bill stuffers or customer letters.

Aqua’s goal is to recover investments made to improve infrastructure while still striving to keep rates manageable for customers. Our proactive capital investment plan ensures that pipes and equipment are properly maintained to guarantee quality water and uninterrupted service.

As infrastructure ages, it becomes less reliable. When main breaks occur or equipment breaks down, the cost to repair them is greater than the cost of a proactive replacement. Additionally, customers may not have service during the time it takes to fix the emergency.

“While no customer wants to hear that their rates are increasing, we strive to help them understand that, without our improvements, it would not be possible for them to continue to receive quality water,” said Regulatory Affairs Manager Kim Joyce. “Our capital improvement model and rates schedule aim to improve each system over time so that each rate request is spaced out appropriately so as not to overwhelm customers whenever possible. Furthermore, each of our requests is carefully scrutinized by the Public Utility Commission to ensure that what we are asking for is warranted.” Even as rates continue to change in Aqua’s 10 states, Aqua is proud of the fact that (in most of our systems) the company is still able to deliver quality water to our customers for approximately a penny per gallon.

 

For Additional Information:

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

Aqua America States 

 

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