Wellington Scoop

What water meters can’t do

by Ray Chung
Since the release of the mayoral task force report, there’s been discussion on the possible installation of water meters in Wellington homes.

The Mayor’s Foreword to this report states:

“There is a need to significantly reduce our collective water use to protect the environment and delay or avoid the need for expensive new water storage facilities. Rapid population growth means the four cities are approaching water supply limits. Water consumption per capita and the level of network leakage are high, and leakage is often hard to detect. Consequently, the Taskforce concludes that water metering in time, should replace rates as the means of funding residential water supply. This would enable rapid location and addressing of leaks, encourage water harvesting and reuse, forestalling the need for expensive new water sources, and give an accurate picture of the actual levels of leakage in the drinking water system.”

The Taskforce recommends that the council should “rapidly progress the business case for universal residential ‘smart’ water meters across Wellington City” … and should “consult with ratepayers on the merits of these smart meters for reducing water loss and enabling more water-efficient behaviour…”

Mayor Foster states that this will assist in determining where the water leaks are and this will reduce the need for more water storage reservoirs. Other councillors are repeating the same mantra.

I wholeheartedly agree that everyone should have access to sufficient, healthy drinking water. What I do question however are the conclusions and recommendations that water meters will solve this fresh water issue.

Firstly, there’s the claim that Wellingtonians consume more than 200 litres of fresh water per day including losses and that this high level of water usage is putting the system under stress. What this report doesn’t state is that 25%-35% of this calculation is water lost from the system through leaks. This figure is calculated by measuring the water entering the system from source and dividing by the number of users. Now if they deducted the water losses from leaks of 25%-35%, this figure would be 130-150 litres per day. A significant reduction!

As further justification for water meters, the Task Force states:

“It is not possible to identify leaks on private property, or to provide customers with information on their specific water consumption to support their desire to change their water use behaviour without water metering. The information provided by these meters can also help to more rapidly identify leaks in the network. The Taskforce supports the conclusion of the recently completed economic case that has identified the use of ‘smart’ meters with remote meter reading capability as delivering overall economic, environmental, customer and operational benefits and the proposal to move forward with the development of a detailed business case. The WWL Shareholders Committee has agreed to progress the business case to the next stage and will be supporting Councils in the region to consult with their communities about the proposals in future”

My previous occupation was the Business Development Manager for APAC and I worked on water projects in the Murray River in Australia, in addition to projects in Thailand, the Philippines and Japan together with my colleagues at Trimble Water. I’ve talked with them about Wellington’s water issues and they’ve told me there’s a water flow meter on every pump station where they use different types depending on the pipe diameter and the flow rate required.

The long and short of it is that installing water meters at residents’ properties will do diddly squat to locate leaks or save water. These meters will be installed on the street Toby and will measure the flow into that property. If the flow increases significantly over the normal usage, either an algorithm picks this up or they wait for the house owners to query this. If you divide the number of houses by the number of water mains pipes, it’s infinitesimally small. The Water utility already knows what sections of pipes are leaking and that’s how they estimate that 25-35% of water measured coming out at the reservoir pumping station is being lost in water mains leaks.

There’s no dissension that this issue is critical. But ratepayers need to know the full story and have all the information.

To reiterate, the task force report states that individual water meters will identify leaks. But in fact, the only possible water leakages that can be detected will be between the street Toby where the water meter will be and the house Toby or actually inside the inside plumbing. I had a leak between the two Tobys last year and replaced the mains pipe. These leaks were very obvious and any householder would see this very swiftly. The same for any pipes leaking within the house as the water would start seeping through the wall.

Much comment is made on identifying leaks as justification for installing meters but in my experience, the WCC and Wellington Water are abysmally slow at repairing reported leaks. I live in Broadmeadows where I walk the dogs around the neighbourhood twice daily and note when there are water leaks and report them. Four years ago, I noted a leak from the street Toby or pipe in Nalanda Crescent and reported it immediately as it was flowing across the footpath and very slippery and one of my neighbours slipped on it. This leak is still there. There have been workers looking at it and digging it up but it still hasn’t been repaired despite neighbours and my reporting it numerous times.

Last year, council staff reported in a briefing to councillors that they had $50 million in a jam jar that could be used to install water meters. Apart from being aghast that there are jam jars with such significant sums sitting around, in my opinion this money would be better used to repair the leaks in the water mains that would save millions of litres of lost water.

All pump stations are fitted with water meters and with Wellington having a hilly terrain, there will be numerous pump stations where it should be straightforward for Wellington Water to determine where water is leaking. That is, if the water meters in these pump stations are operational.

Leaked water from main pipes is not just a waste of water but it raises the water table causing issues and creates sinkholes where the ground is washed away causing the road to collapse.

There were water experts on this Mayoral Taskforce so I wonder why this was never brought up. Is there a faction which has other reasons to promote individual water meters?


  1. No Regerts, 4. February 2021, 8:58

    A quick walk around any suburb would highlight about half a dozen leaks in the streets. Maybe WCC should send their employees out for a walk every week instead of sitting behind desks dreaming up metering schemes. It could be a team building exercise. The team who locates the most leaks wins a signed mittens photo.

  2. TrevorH, 4. February 2021, 9:28

    The lack of expertise within the WCC on the 3 waters is frightening. Thanks Ray for clarifying that water meters will do virtually nothing to identify serious leakages in the system, or where indeed the pipes are in urgent need of renewal. Water meters are a red herring; the key issue for many ratepayers is whither, why and by whom has the depreciation funding which has been levied for many years been “redirected”? We still don’t have satisfactory answers from the Council. Unless we deal with mismanagement there is no assurance additional resources will achieve anything. I am convinced the appointment of Commissioners is now essential to sort out the mess we find ourselves in.

  3. HR, 4. February 2021, 12:41

    This is becoming yet another issue where it is clear to the general public that answers proposed by WCC, GWRC and associated organisations will not solve the problems they say they will. And consultations will mean nothing. Im sitting in Newtown right now where in spite of ‘consultation’ my options for getting home to Miramar on public transport are 2 buses and a 15 minute walk.

  4. Andy Mellon, 4. February 2021, 14:53

    Thanks Ray. I’d asked the question about how exactly water meters help to identify off-property leaks to one of the Regional Councillors waxing lyrical about water meters on social media back in November. No reply was forthcoming. This excellent analysis from Ray backs-up what logic seems to suggest. Water meters aren’t an aid to fixing the majority of leak issues.

  5. John, 4. February 2021, 16:06

    As a former employee of councils in the North and South I can confirm that without fail the number of residential/commercial/industrial/education leaks are insignificant when compared to mains losses. One authority [which was metered in and out] had losses of about 18% – and when water meters were finally installed it confirmed that 95% of the losses reported were on Council Mains. A similar case was in an adjoining Borough where losses of 30% were recorded and only 5% could be attributed to residential or commercial use. Depending on the soils in the area not all leaks emerge to the surface. In Wellington this is even more pronounced when seepage enters the rock substrate. Some of the consequences are serious land slips. I do believe in the use of water meters if only for the benefit of ratepayers saying to the Council [or its outsourced contractor] – “You need to do better”. Mayor and Councilors please note!

  6. Mike Mellor, 4. February 2021, 16:31

    It is an oversimplification to say that “the conclusions and recommendations [of the Mayoral task Force Report] that water meters will solve this fresh water issue [access to sufficient, healthy drinking water]”, since the installation of water meters is only part of the drinking water recommendations. There are other relevant recommendations, too long too go into here – see https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/20422041/j011503-three-waters-taskforce-report.pdf for details. Nowhere does the report say that water meters on their own will solve the issues – they are just part of the solution.

    And to say (without evidence) that “installing water meters at residents’ properties will do diddly squat…to save water” is arguing in the face of both experience and economics. Data on water consumption by region at https://www.waternz.org.nz/residentialefficiency shows that areas with meters tend overall to have lower residential consumption per head; and economics tell us that people will consume more of something that appears to be “free” (like water paid through the rates, irrespective of consumption) than if they have to pay for it. That extra consumption comes at a significant cost to the community, particularly when additional water sources or storage are required.

    Using the current state of water infrastructure to argue against water meters makes no sense – it’s just a distraction from the pressing current issues. Reducing water consumption per head (as has happened in metered Auckland) is something that has to happen in the longer term, irrespective of the current crisis, and the Task Force has recommended that water meters play an important role in that.

  7. Andrew Bartlett, 4. February 2021, 22:52

    In short, a (soon to be replaced) toilet at my place runs. There is no damage to my property if the rest of the sewer plumbing is OK, so why should I pay for a new cistern valve?

    I turn off the stop-cock between fills because I’m a reasonable human (but I can hardly expect the kids to), but as water is free why should I as a rational homeowner fix the leak?

    If I buy a new toilet, should I get the most water efficient one I can, or as water is free at the point of use, not bother?

    I’m an Aussie, I know droughts and level 5 water restrictions. So I care, but we shouldn’t hope everyone else will pay or put in effort to save something that is ‘free’.

    I’ve found Wellington Water does fix leaks – within a week or so if you e-mail WCC with the details.

    Perhaps those being reported are on the customer side of the toby, where they would cost the customer if fixed but do no major harm to the garden if left to run?

  8. Ray Chung, 5. February 2021, 14:20

    Hi Andrew, we hear a lot about people’s motivation for guiding their actions, particularly around as you say, if it’s free, then lets use more of it. I spoke with a couple of councillors and they both said that if residents had to pay for their water through a separate monthly bill, they’d use less of it as Mike Mellor states. I concede that this may be correct but I feel that this reason is overused and I’m not convinced that everyone is motivated by money but also “doing the right thing.” When I was running for council, I participated in a “Meet the candidates” evening and I was asked by a gentleman in the audience, “How do we know that if you’re elected to council, you will do all the things that you say you will and you’re not just running for the money?” My reply was that if I succeeded in being elected to council, my income would be less than half of what I was currently earning. I do think that we currently have councillors who are in there just for the money but there are also those who want to achieve something worthwhile for all Wellingtonians. Regarding your analogy about the water, I’m sure that you’re just being cynical to make a point but there are many people who acknowledge that there is a cost to getting the water from your tap, even though we’re not paying a separate bill for it. We’re still paying for it through our rates and there’s a significant cost to this. Regarding your comment about water leaks and referring back to my comment about the leak at Nalanda Crescent in Broadmeadows, the leak is most definitely coming out of the street toby and leaking across the footpath so it’s between the street mains and the street toby and yes, it was first reported over four years ago and multiple times since. You’re incorrect about any leaks between the street toby and house toby leaking into the garden and not causing any harm, in fact, this is the exact situation that I had and it caused the ground water table to rise under the house and water started seeping through the concrete slab foundations into the house. Looking at your analogy of a water efficient cistern, of course, the decision is yours and the answer will be if you are concerned about wasting water or not and not whether the water if “free!” Cheers!

  9. Ross Clark, 10. February 2021, 0:41

    “What you can’t measure you can’t change”.

  10. IanS, 14. February 2021, 9:22

    I agree Ross. “If you do not measure it, you do not fix it” even if it is costing all ratepayers, including you, a lot each year.
    Our ‘voluntary water meter’ installed during the trial at least 10 years ago, has consistently meant we pay less for our water than others paying through their rates.
    Another recent benefit has been that the meter ‘proved’ that the water leak coming out of the bank onto our drive is not from “our” pipe, which would have cost us higher water bills and an expensive plumbers visit. Wellington Water has accepted that the leak is potable water but it must be coming from the water main and not the supply pipe on our side of the toby+meter. I hope they fix the water main leak before it brings down the whole sodden bank of soil on to our drive.

  11. Toni, 14. February 2021, 14:13

    Ross and Ian: Totally agree. Many people would be better off with a water meter, while those with the highest useage are very happy to be subsidised by everyone else. And at least water metres would help determine where, and who is responsible, for the many leaks occurring in properties around the city

  12. Another Mark, 5. March 2021, 22:49

    Toni. Water meters are just another apportionment methodology. They will probably cost around $90m to implement, and then the council will also have to rate you for depreciation, maintenance and replacement. Why would you add these costs to your rates to determine if you will pay more or less than your neighbour? The general rate already does that based on capital values. The net effect is you all end up paying more? At present water infrastructure costs are budgetted each year and apportioned between ratepayers on capital value, rather than water consumed. The switch from one methodology to another doesn’t result in much of a saving for individual ratepayers – when compared. Rather it adds costs. And if water consumption falls, then the council has to increase the unit price of water, as they still have to fund their budgets. So ratepayers are worse off. Water meters are a waste of ratepayer money. You’re better to invest $90m in reducing water loss and increasing storage. Water meters will deliver neither – other than provide a more expensive way to apportion water maintenance costs. Of course councils like them because it enables more revenue to be raised from ratepayers and allows the cost of water maintenance to come off the general rate (giving the false impression of rates going down), while at the same time shifting the cost to a targeted water rate (or unit price).