The Numbers Behind Pennsylvania’s Leaking Water Systems

This large water main break in Philadelphia in December 2013 cut service to thousands of customers across eight zip codes. But more water is routinely lost through leaks that are not visible above ground.
Credit: Photo credit to and David Maialetti (Photographer)

Every water system leaks—some a little, some a lot. Last October, a break in a 10-inch water main in McCandless in Allegheny County sent water rushing into a nearby home and cut water service to 20 other homes, according to KDKA. In December 2013, a 48-inch water main at the intersection of Frankford and Torresdale Avenues in Philadelphia gushed over 20 million gallons before being repaired. Water service was affected for thousands of residential and business customers in eight zip codes, forcing 38 schools to close early, according to NBC 10. Yikes!

Big water main breaks like this are frequently in the news. But in reality, only a fraction of main breaks actually make the news, and only a small fraction of all the water lost from water utility pipes actually comes from breaks that are visible above ground. Much more water is lost from leaks that continue below ground and go unseen for months and even years.

A new report released by NRDC today begins to shed some light on the largely hidden loss of drinking water across Pennsylvania. The report’s author, George Kunkel, is a highly regarded expert on municipal water loss recently retired from the Philadelphia Water Department, where he did pioneering work to quantify the enormous losses from that city’s water distribution piping and helped author the manual on municipal water loss audits published by the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

A water loss audit is an essential building block for establishing an effective program to find and fix leaks and breaks that cost customers money and place water quality at risk. Unlike some other states tracked by NRDC, Pennsylvania does not yet have a requirement for all water suppliers to assess and report on their water losses using standardized terms and methodology published by the AWWA. However, investor-owned water companies regulated by the Public Utility Commission are required to file a standardized water audit report each year, as are all water suppliers in the Delaware River Basin under the jurisdiction of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), an interstate agency headquartered in West Trenton, NJ. The new report carefully reviewed 155 water audits filed with these two agencies by Pennsylvania water utilities in 2013 and used them to generate eye-opening estimates of water losses statewide.

For 155 utilities in Pennsylvania that filed usable water audit reports for 2013:

  • Based on data reported, the loss of treated drinking water occurred at a rate of 154 million gallons per day in 2013. This equates to a loss of about 48 gallons per customer connection per day, with many utilities losing substantially more than this amount.
  • In addition, the data reported by these 155 utilities indicated an additional 47 million gallons per day going unbilled, largely through faulty measurement and billing practices.
  • Taken together, a conservative value for these losses is $115 million dollars per year.

Based on the reported data, an extrapolation to all water utilities statewide produced the following estimates:

  • An estimated 327 million gallons per day treated drinking water are being lost each day across Pennsylvania;
  • Out of this total, over 104 million gallons per day of water losses, conservatively valued at nearly $20 million per year, are likely to be cost-effective for utilities to save. (This amount of water is equal to the water use of about 1.78 million Pennsylvania residents, or a population greater than Philadelphia, the state’s largest city);
  • An additional $138 million per year in lost revenue is likely to be cost-effective for utilities to recover through improved water measurement and billing practices.

Questions involving water infrastructure improvements often quickly turn to costs. But these conservative estimates suggest that many water suppliers in Pennsylvania would find it economical for themselves and their customers to get started right away to reduce water losses and recover lost revenue.

Some water managers may want to avoid talking about these statistics, concerned that discussions of water loss might cast their management in a bad light. But today’s managers are typically not responsible for the disinvestment and neglect of the buried infrastructure that has occurred in decades past. Rather, we look to today’s leaders to improve performance going forward. Thoughtful managers recognize that the public is largely unaware of the need for continual monitoring, assessment, and preventive maintenance to reduce the waste of water and maintain the physical integrity of the water distribution system, and they are actually anxious to talk about it.

Annual water loss audits are the first step towards achieving cost-effective reductions in water loss. These audits can be readily conducted by any water utility, at minimal cost. AWWA makes available free auditing software, and an accompanying manual is available for about $100. Audits are typically performed with modest investment of time by existing utility staff. NRDC is working with the Water Loss Committee of the Pennsylvania Section of AWWA to increase the use of water loss audits.

NRDC recommends four steps that could be taken now to make critical (and credible) water audit information available statewide in Pennsylvania:

  1. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should improve its management of water loss data currently collected by removing vague and obsolete terminology from all forms and water system reports, to be replaced by AWWA terms and definitions.
  2. The Public Utilities Commission should improve its current water audit data collection by requiring regulated water companies to submit a) water audits in the fully functional electronic format as generated by AWWA software; b) separate water audit reports for each hydrologically independent service area, rather than simply one per company; and c) third-party validation of the quality of data entries in the audit report.
  3. The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST), which together with DEP provides financial assistance for water and wastewater systems for water infrastructure projects, should consider allocating funds to support water audit training and validation, as other states have done.
  4. Pennsylvania should consider establishing an annual water loss reporting and disclosure requirement for all water suppliers, as outlined in NRDC’s Model State Water Loss Audit legislation.

“Report of the Evaluation of Water Audit Data for Pennsylvania Water Utilities.” February 15, 2017. George Kunkel, Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, Philadelphia, PA.

About the Author: George Kunkel is Principal of Kunkel Water Efficiency Consulting, a firm that specializes in water loss control in drinking water utilities. He has over 36 years of water utility and consulting experience and led the successful water loss control program in Philadelphia for over 20 years. He is active in the American Water Works Association, having served in multiple roles, including chair of the Water Loss Control Committee. Mr. Kunkel is currently the chair of the subcommittee that publishes AWWA’s M36 guidance manual on water loss control and is a co-author of the AWWA Free Water Audit Software. He has been involved in many water loss control projects in AWWA and the Water Research Foundation; and he was the recipient of the 2010 Water Star Award from the Alliance for Water Efficiency and the AWWA Peak Performance Award in 2016.