Southern Water Universal Metering Project

Southern Water’s pioneering five-year programme to install nearly 450,000 meters across almost 90% of households in its region was completed in late 2015.

Southern Water's metering programme has extended to cover almost 90% of customer households across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.
Southern Water's metering programme has extended to cover almost 90% of customer households across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.

Metered households are now using an average of 60 litres less water per day – 16.5% difference with non-metered households – and with additional improvements to leakage detection, total savings of approximately 27 million litres of water per day have been delivered.

The programme represents the first time a UK water company has implemented a universal metering scheme on such a scale. In recognition, Southern Water received ICE's 2015 Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management.

Project Details

Location: South East England
Cost: £3.31m
Year of completion: 2015
Duration: 5 years
Client: Southern Water
Main Contractor: Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions

Challenge summary: Deliver more effective management of water resources through demand reduction and leakage detection; deliver reduced bills for customers.

Challenge solution: Installation of intelligent water meters at nearly 90% of Southern Water customers' households; wide customer engagement programme.

Introduction

The south east of England is one of the most water stressed parts of the UK. With climate and weather patterns becoming ever more predictable – a number of extremely high and low rainfall periods having taken place throughout the 2000s to date – water companies have had to employ a number of strategies to manage their water resources effectively and efficiently, in order to deliver supplies of drinking water to their customers.

Every five years, water companies must review and update their Water Resource Management Plans (WRMPs), which set out how they intend to manage and allocate their resources for the next 25 years. The plans forecast supply (how much water is available to use, and how this might be impacted on in the future) and demand (how much water customers need, and how their need might change in the future), as well as other elements such as leakage rate. In their 2010 WRMP, Southern Water set out their plans to implement a universal metering programme – to install meters at the vast majority of customer properties, with the objective of saving water through reducing demand and improving leakage detection.

Metering is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to save water when compared to other potential solutions. Desalination – collecting and treating seawater to increase supply of drinking water – is highly energy and carbon intensive, and plants cost a lot to build. Building new reservoirs is also extremely expensive, meaning costs are passed on to customers, and has significant impacts on the environment. In comparison with these options, metering infrastructure is much cheaper to install, requires relatively little energy to operate and delivers significant gains on both supply and demand sides.

Exhaustive research conducted by Southern Water concluded that 85% of customers agreed with the company's belief that paying for the exact amount of water used is the fairest way to charge, and would give customers more control over their bills. Research at the University of Southampton has also showed that the programme has resulted in a strong decrease in water consumption – more than 60l/d per metered household.

Customer Engagement

A key priority for Southern Water was to implement a "customer journey" and not just a programme to install 450,000 water meters. An award winning information campaign was launched to advise customers how they could reduce water use and explain why metering was taking place. This customer contact took place around three months before meters were installed and operating – the campaign on its own, i.e. without meters in operation, led to a 12.5% reduction in customer water use.

The campaign included communication across a number of platforms:

  • Digital Media – interactive website detailing installation dates and methods to save water; instant response Q&A page; YouTube clip showing Southern's award-winning water efficiency film
  • Traditional Media – television, radio and newspaper coverage; promotion through council, school and housing publications
  • Marketing – professional designers visiting schools to help children identify ways to save water; presentations to health authorities and community groups; discounts on water efficiency devices at homeware retailers
  • Stakeholder Engagement – Meetings with local MPs; partnership with Energy Saving Trust, the Design Council, Waterwise and the World Wildlife Fund; liaison with all council bodies, Ofwat and the Consumer Council for Water

An important feature of the programme was visits to customer households. After the initial round of visits offering early advice, another round took place on the day of installation, providing customers with a booklet explaining that the meter is now being switched on and the various tariff choices available. This included a Changeover Tariff which ensures that, if a metered bill is higher than the older unmetered bill, the bill will be reduced for the first two years to allow customers to adjust their usage. Customers were also given the choice to switch straight to metered charges immediately following installation.

A week before the meters were installed, signs showing a blue drip symbol were placed in the street, which were then replaced with pink drips on the day that the meters were to be installed and switched on. Mobile exhibition units were also positioned in the area during the installation period, with Southern Water representatives available to offer advice and answer questions. Customers were steered to a host of further information – including a free water audit of their homes and details of free and discounted water-efficiency products.

Southern Water also offer a range of financial support measures for customers with difficulty paying bills. Support tariffs are available which include a home visit from a "Green Doctor", who offers installation of free water efficiency devices such as tap aerators and low consumption shower heads. The programme has seen 156,000 such devices installed to customer homes, with a predicted average saving of 20l/d per household. Some households with a number of devices installed, plus the associated behaviour change to reduce usage, have seen reductions of up to 100l/d. Customers in significant hardship can have their bills reduced by up to 90% if they meet qualifying criteria.

Metering Technology

Southern Water researched metering technology on an international level for a model that would offer optimised installation, intelligent reading and automatic leakage detection. The selected model – the intelligent Gladiator meter – was the first of its kind in the world and the most advanced to be used in the UK water industry.

The Gladiator, supplied by Arad, features an integrated transmitter and processor into its vacuum-sealed head. It employs Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) technology, transmitting data every 11 seconds which can be read remotely from "drive-by" equipment installed in vehicles, which are fitted with navigation and route optimisation software. Readings can be taken quickly and efficiently across wide areas – commonly around 3,000 per day by one van and up to 8,000 per day in high density areas – which is vital for the densely populated areas of the south east. Readings are then transmitted back to a central database which feeds into the Southern Water billing system.

Arad's intelligent Gladiator water meter
Arad's intelligent Gladiator water meter

The meters also feature a leak alarm which activates when water runs continuously through the meter for four hours. The alarm is picked up when the meter is read (four times in the first year) so that a leak can be identified and repaired. This detection method also allows refund calculations to be made for customers from the exact day that a leak commences. The meter's starting flow is only 1l/h, so even very small leaks can be detected.

Installation Programme

The installation programme began in late 2010, with the initial phases focusing on the most water stressed areas of Southern Water's resource zone including Southampton, Horsham and the Medway area, plus other areas where there was the greatest opportunity to reduce leakage. Later the programme extended to cover almost 90% of all customer properties throughout Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. The remaining properties – mostly those with complicated plumbing systems or shared supply pipes, making meter installations impractical – have their usage assessed via different methods and will be considered for bespoke metering systems in the coming years.

The programme saw the installation of almost 450,000 water meters
The programme saw the installation of almost 450,000 water meters

Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions were the main contractor for the installation programme, which also involved replacing around 100,000 existing, older meter units with the new intelligent models. Installation teams worked on a street-by-street timetable, accompanied by the mobile exhibition unit offering advice to customers. In most cases the meters were fitted outside properties under the public footpath, removing the disruption of entering customer homes. The process varied from simply fitting a new meter to the existing plumbing system to digging a hole (typically 80cm deep) to install a plastic meter box and the meter itself, before filling in the ground.

Conclusions & Benefits to Society

The programme has delivered huge water usage reduction of around 27 million litres of water per day across the south east of England, which was ultimately far more than the originally predicted 16 million litres. The automatic leakage detection facility has the capability to deliver a further saving of 7 million litres per day. These savings have had massive positive impacts on the environment of the region, with less water being taken from rivers and reservoirs, and less water requiring chemical treatment.

Domestic consumption of water has been reduced by a total of 16.5% on average, which is far more than the predicted national average of 10% when meters are installed. Through reduced demand, customers have benefited from reduced bills – to date, 62% of metered households are saving an average of £162 a year on water bills. Energy bills are also lower, as less heating of water is required for daily tasks such as central heating and taking a bath or shower – which can also make up around 30% of the average home's carbon footprint.

Research carried out at the University of Southampton has studied the benefits of Southern Water's programme over the past four years. Corroborating the statistics above, the research has found that the programme has had significant impacts on domestic water consumption.

The study – The Impact of Price and Information on Water Consumption, conducted by Professor Mirco Tonin and Professor Carmine Ornaghi – looked at around 250,000 households that received meters during the programme and compared them with consumption in areas with pre-existing meters. This allowed the effect of the metering programme to be separated from any variations in water use due to seasonality or to changes in economic conditions such as unemployment. The research shows clearly that customers are willing to work with their water company to reduce usage, control their bills, protect the environment and help ensure continuity of supply in a densely populated, water stressed area such as South East England.

Positive support for the metering programme was received from government Ministers and a number of MPs throughout the region. The scheme has also won a number of awards, including ICE's Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management in 2015.

Meyrick Gough (centre), Water Quality & Strategy Manager at Southern Water, accepts the ICE Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management Award 2015
Meyrick Gough (centre), Water Quality & Strategy Manager at Southern Water, accepts the ICE Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management Award 2015

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