A Very Expensive Band-Aid: One Facility’s $54-Million Water Bill, Explained

Undetected Leaks Have Real Fiscal Consequences for Facilities and Municipalities

A Very Expensive Band-Aid: One Facility’s $54-Million Water Bill, Explained

Undetected Leaks Have Real Fiscal Consequences for Facilities and Municipalities

At GPRS, we bang the drum about the power of leak detection and water loss surveys, and we wonder if anyone is listening.

Would a $54.7 million dollar water bill get your attention?

Screenshot with the title 500,000 gallons per day and a YouTube play button
See how GPRS Leak Detection Project Manager Derek Kauffman found the gigantic leak.

Here’s a brief case study that quite literally makes the case that any large facility or municipal manager needs to convince stakeholders and government to put annual water loss surveys into their budget – because the cost to this one industrial facility was $5,000 per day – for a leak in the fire suppression system they’d known about since the late 1980s!

How much water do you have to be losing to cost yourself an extra $5,000 per day in water bills?

500,000 gallons. Per day.

No one can say with any certainty when the leak became that big, but an educated guess would put it on the timeline where the now long-retired facility manager made the decision to install a secondary jockey pump “the size of a 55-gallon barrel” to keep the fire loop’s water pressure up.

“Every fire loop system has a jockey pump that comes standard. It’s just there to keep the system pressurized should there ever be a fire, and it starts spraying water to put the fire out. It has to keep pumping water into the system. Instead of repairing the leak, they put another jockey pump in. This one was approximately the size of a 55-gallon barrel,” said GPRS Leak Detection Project Manager, Derek Kauffman.

“At some point, it got so bad that both jockey pumps were running simultaneously, constantly, just day and night.”

Testing revealed that the fire loop was losing 500,000 gallons of water daily.

Conservatively speaking, the second jockey pump installation would have occurred somewhere in the early 1990s. Which means this single facility may have lost half a million gallons of water per day, every day, for 30 years.

Again, conservatively speaking, that would add up to 5.5 billion gallons of water. We can’t call it non-revenue water per se, because the facility certainly paid their utility bill, which would have run an additional $5,000 per day over their normal usage…

$5,000 x 365 x 30 = $54.7 MILLION DOLLARS.

Now, those millions were spread out year over year, but that’s still an additional $1.82 million in water bills for each year the leak was that severe.

How Didn’t They Know They Had a Giant Leak?

The short answer is, they knew they had a leak, but they had no idea how expensive, large, or potentially dangerous it was.

The facility, located in Oregon, was constructed in the 1980s. The first mention in their facility infrastructure records of a leak comes up in the late 1980s. It was sometime after that, that the then-facility manager made the determination that the solution was to keep the pressure up, rather than locate and fix the fire suppression leak.

Why Didn’t They Fix The Leak?

Up until the last 20 years or so, as leak correlator technology has joined acoustic leak detection to pinpoint pressurized leaks, the most common way to find a water line leak was to daylight it.

Daylighting, also called potholing, is when you break ground so that you can physically inspect a utility line. There are some common-sense guidelines when it comes to daylighting water lines – such as being aware of the most likely areas to suffer a line rupture – but in reality, the facility manager just takes a shot in the dark. If they are wrong, they’ll fill in that hole, and go dig another, and on and on until they find their leak.

You can imagine how time consuming, expensive, and frustrating “playing whack-a-mole” with a water leak would be in that situation.

Another way they’d be aware of the severity of the leak is if there were surface indicators like standing water, sinking pavement, etc. In the case of this facility, however, there were no surface indications of a massive leak. So, to the untrained eye, and ear, that giant jockey pump was doing its job, even if it cost more.

GPRS Project Manager Kauffman, said, “When I asked my site contact what evidence they had that the system was leaking, he told me there was not a single drop of water that could be seen surfacing.”

How Did GPRS Find The Leak?

When the facility director called in GPRS, Kauffman, a Leak Detection specialist who is certified in Subsurface Investigation Methodology at the 201 level, began creating an exhaustive map of the subsurface water system as he deployed acoustic technology and leak correlators, along with ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electromagnetic (EM) locators to find and document the water infrastructure.

GPRS Project Manager Derek Kauffman specializes in leak detection services in the Pacific Northwest.

“Locating a leak on this line was going to be very, very difficult,” Kauffman remembered. He could hear something outside the facility, but it was too faint to be the sizable leak he knew he was after, so he called on back-up: Steve Carney, a GPRS Leak Detection Area Manager in New York. Because of our nationwide footprint and collaborative approach to problem solving, Carney was able to advise him that the leak was likely coming from inside the building.

And, sure enough, once Kauffman got permission to enter the building and listen, he pinpointed the leak to an elbow joint right at the point the pipes entered the building.

“It almost blew my ear drums out, it was so loud,” Kauffman said.

Once he pinpointed the leak, he provided his customer with a full Leak Detection Report, detailing the leak location, the steps taken to confirm its location, and a PDF map of the water line system, all delivered via SiteMap®, so that every member of the facility team who needed the information could access it at the click of a button.

How Water Loss Surveys Save Facilities Money

The big question Kauffman is left with is whether the customer confirmed where the water ran off to. Utility lines of all kinds provide what are called preferential pathways: migration paths for liquids to move more quickly along the utility line channels than through packed soil, which can be a particular problem for mitigating NRW.  

That’s why annual routine water loss surveys are strongly recommended for facilities and municipalities of all sizes; because you can’t stop what you can’t find. Every big leak starts as a small one, and it is much easier to repair a small leak than deal with the damages that can be caused by a large one.

“When you’re losing that much water, at that volume, and there’s no evidence of it surfacing anywhere, it was believed that it was most likely under the building… This particular facility had a two-foot thick, slab-on-grade foundation,” said Kauffman.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Stop Non-Revenue Water Loss?

Routine leak detection surveys are a start, but education of your team is crucial to mitigate leak problems before they become catastrophes. GPRS sponsors Water & Sewer Damage Awareness Week (WSDAW) each fall to educate facility and municipal managers on how they can stop NRW loss and save money.

How does Acoustic Leak Detection Work?

Acoustic leak detection is almost more art than science, which is why the best-trained GPRS Project Managers have years of experience and have built a sound library – a reference full of the differing tones of water pressure, leaks, and ambient noise, catalogued by pipe material and diameter. It’s also why they never rely on their ears alone. Even if they are certain of their findings, our Project Managers back up their ears with the hard science of leak correlators. These machines utilize computer technology and algorithms to pinpoint leaks. They also allow us to provide reporting to customers about the variety and location of any leaks we find as part of a Leak Detection Report or Routine Water Loss Survey. Learn more about leak detection, here.