ORLEANS — Like information, water wants to be free. And, like information, it isn’t.
Your water bill pays for the infrastructure that pumps the liquid out of the town’s wells, treats it to ensure quality, and sends it out to homes and businesses. It flows into a house’s or store’s own pipes, where it’s controlled by the turn of a faucet – or is it?
Things happen. Pipes leak or break, toilets keep running, hoses are left on, and the investment in clean, drinkable water seeps away into the ground. What’s more, when the water department has to make up for that loss, it comes up against a state-imposed cap on the amount it can pump from its wells. Go above that, and the town pays a fine, which reduces resources for maintaining the existing system and finding new water sources.
In this case, time really is money. The faster a leak is discovered, the sooner it can be corrected and the loss of precious water stanched. Fortunately, Orleans has a new meter system that allows monitoring of water usage and can send an alert both to department personnel and customers when a spike occurs.
“The Eye on Water App will allow for leak alerts, usage tracking and trending,” water department assistant superintendent Susan Brown wrote in an email. “This could be potentially valuable for those who rent their properties, have irrigation, or for our snowbirds. We have in the past found leaks in pools, garden hoses left on unnoticed, outdoor shower leaks, irrigation leaks, underground leaks. In one case a house was being worked on during the winter months while owners were away where a large leak was triggered. One of the workers used a faulty toilet and forgot to shut the house water off before leaving and it ran all night.”
“The advantage of Eye on Water is that on a daily basis we can inform people that there’s a problem,” water and sewer board commissioner Len Short said in an interview. “With so many part-time home owners down here, there’s a need for that kind of monitoring… We can tell them how much water is being used. It’s pretty obvious that if they’re using several thousand gallons, there’s a problem.” The alert allows property owners who may be in Arizona or Florida for the winter to receive an email alert and to call someone locally to go to the house and address the problem right away.
By signing up for Eye on Water – which can be done by going to www.town.orleans.ma.us/water-department/pages/eye-on-water-sign-up and providing a zip code, account number, and email address – customers can get a jump on the problem.
“I do not wish to give people a false sense of security as it takes 24 hours of a leak before the meter can recognize there is a leak,” Brown wrote, “but customers can be potentially notified fairly quick whereas in the past they couldn’t and would wonder why their water bill was so high.”
Although water department staff and board members believe Orleans is the only Cape town offering a customer portal for water tracking and leak detection, sign-up is stalled at 6 percent. There are some, Brown wrote, “who shy away from technology or who would rather that we just notify them that they have a leak. We can only guarantee this if we have a valid email address on file and if their spam filter doesn’t place the alert in a junk folder.”
Put the blame on us, Short says. “We haven’t really done a good job,” he said. “We’ve put notices in the water bills, but people just don’t read that kind of stuff. We were going to do a booth at town meeting in June but we never got it together. We need all sorts of publicity.”
One resident who has been convinced to sign up is Bill Powers. Before making that decision, he was in his home this winter and thus able to notice that water pressure had dropped significantly. He called the department and found out “we were losing 80,000 gallons an hour… I learned that a lot of houses, anything here in the 1960s, unless something’s been done, have old pipes connecting to the town system. Apparently, they’re starting to go.” Powers got a partial abatement on his bill.
“If I had it to do over again,” he said, “I would have had that app and maybe would have known we had that leak.”