Almost a billion gallons of water each year flows into the system serving Homewood and Flossmoor. Can public works departments keep track of every drop? Not quite. But local public works officials are under increasing pressure to account for most of them.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series that takes a look at our water system from various angles. These stories originally appeared in the August 2016 print edition of the Chronicle.
Almost a billion gallons of water each year flows into the system serving Homewood and Flossmoor.
Can public works departments keep track of every drop? Not quite. But local public works officials are under increasing pressure to account for most of them.
That makes water loss one of the toughest challenges facing public works departments. Clean water is an increasingly precious resource, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has stringent requirements for monitoring usage.
It might sound like a matter of fixing leaks in the system, but escaping water is only part of the loss problem.
Water loss is as much an accounting problem as an infrastructure problem, according to Homewood Public Works Director John Schaefer. Basically, water loss is the difference between the amount of water a municipality purchases and the amount of usage it can account for.
Both Homewood and Flossmoor are taking steps to comply with water loss standards.
In 2015, Flossmoor purchased about 360 million gallons of water. Of that amount, the village billed its own customers for about 240 million gallons.
That means that about one third of the water is “lost,” either due to leaky water mains or inefficient meters that are supposed to keep track of how much water is used.
Earlier this year, Flossmoor Finance Director Scott Bordui said the village’s billed-to-purchase ratio is “poor” and remains a nagging problem in the local water distribution system.
Bordui said Flossmoor has had a 33 percent water loss for the last six years, and at least a 25 percent water loss for the last 10 years.
Homewood’s loss record is not as severe, and is generally much better than it was a decade ago, when it peaked at nearly 19 percent. In 2015, water loss was 12.9 percent after several years of loss in the 4 to 7 percent range.
IDNR allows an 8 percent annual water loss. The current limit is 12 percent, but that will only be in effect for two years, according to Homewood Utility Supervisor Harry Hammock. He said the limit will return to 8 percent after the transition period to a new standard that eliminates allowable water loss from village main lines.
When the village exceeds the loss limit, officials have to devise a remediation plan to submit to IDNR.
Flossmoor is taking steps to correct the water loss problem. The village is in the fourth year of a water main replacement project designed to keep more water in the system.
The $7.28 million water main replacement project was approved by voters in November 2012. Starting in 2013, the village has replaced the leakiest water mains throughout Flossmoor. The project is now in its fourth year and will conclude in 2018. When it is finished, a total of six miles of water mains will have been replaced. Flossmoor has a total of 63.8 miles of water mains.
Another factor in the water loss equation — faulty home and business meters — is also being addressed. All water meters for large customers — mostly for businesses but also for schools – have been replaced. The village has 75 large water meters ranging in size from 1.5 to 6 inches in diameter.
Flossmoor has 3,693 residential water customers who use meters with diameters between 5/8 and 1 inch. The village is in the process of replacing the current residential water meters with 1-inch IPerl meters. Each costs $172 and has a computer touchpad that allows the village to get a constant, accurate profile on water usage.
The new residential meters contain no metal parts. In the past, meters had brass fittings. The new meters are a plastic composite with no moving parts. As before, water flows through the meters, which now have digital components to keep track of the water flow.
Some Flossmoor meters may be more than 30 years old. The older they get, the less likely it is that they’ll be accurate. This of course, means that the meters are not tabulating all the water that’s being used.
“We get calls whenever a new meter is installed,” Public Works Director John Brunke said. “Water bills go up and we get calls from people who think the new meters are wrong.” They are, in fact, accurately recording water usage, he said.
Once removed from homes, some older meters are being tested to determine their level of accuracy — or inaccuracy.
Brunke said former meters have been tested for the past six months in an attempt to find out how much water was lost due to inaccurate readings.
Older meters “slow down” and build up layers of calcification, whereas the new meters are “much more accurate,” he said.
According to a public works survey, more than 1,500 water meters in Flossmoor are at least 10 years old; about 600 meters were replaced in recent years but have been found to be underperforming.
This year, Flossmoor plans to replace 1,450 residential water meters that are not working properly. By next spring, all homes in Flossmoor are expected to have state-of-the-art meters.
Hammock believes that and other steps taken by Homewood last year will put the village well within the loss limit this year.
First, Homewood has already replaced all meters in the village.
In his annual audit report to IDNR, he noted that Homewood replaced 6,723 meters with Sensus smart meters similar to those being installed in Flossmoor.
The $2.3 million project is expected to significantly reduce loss due to aging, inaccurate meters.
The village also conducted a leak survey on 111 miles of water main. The survey revealed leakage of more than 8,000 gallons per day. Those leaks have been repaired.
Eric Crump contributed to this story.