When the leak began in one of the units at 470 West End Avenue, no one seemed to notice. The shareholder was away; none of the neighbors complained, and the maid didn’t report any problems to the super. Then, James Flaherty, director of management for Century Operating Corp., which manages the co-op, received a notice from the building’s water monitoring company: “Big uptrend – check for leaks.”
Flaherty immediately contacted the building’s super and asked him to look into the problem. After checking almost half of the co-op’s 108 units, the super and porter struck gold: the sound of water rushing non-stop through the walls of a shareholder’s apartment. They knocked, entered, and discovered the source of the problem: a broken toilet. By that point, the water had been running through the toilet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly two weeks.
While Flaherty has flirted with the idea of suggesting the board charge shareholders for wasting water, he hasn’t yet. “Some people don’t realize how much water is being consumed by a running toilet, but it can add up,” says the management property executive. He credits the water monitor, the Vantage Group, with saving his co-ops tens of thousands of dollars in repairs and lost water costs since they hired the company to track water use five years ago.
Welcome to the new age of water management: where companies will not only go over a building’s water bill and help it recoup overcharges paid to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but also track ongoing water usage, and raise red flags when normal usage patterns go up or down.
Water monitoring companies have been around in one incarnation or another since New York City property owners began switching from paying for water based on frontage to paying for water based on metered usage in the early 1990s. Despite that, today only 2,000 properties, according to the DEP, are on an automatic meter reading system, which allows companies like Vantage to track daily usage via information sent to a computer over a phone line, and send out warnings when water use shoots up or dips below normal. And the savings for consumers can be considerable.
The way it works is slightly technical. Co-op owners can contract directly with the New York City DEP to have an automatic meter reading (AMR) panel installed over their meter. While there is no cost for the installation, the building does have to pay for the installation of an additional telephone line [and thereafter monthly telephone charges], so the panel can send the information from the meter to the DEP for monthly billing to the co-op.
For co-ops that want to obtain higher cost savings, buildings can hire an AMR distributor, who will install the panel and provide monthly services, such as tracking the water usage, offering suggestions on water conservation, and seeking money from the DEP, if there are overcharges on a bill.
When clients hire his company, says Alan Rothschild, president of Vantage, his employees first do a site visit, examining the type of plumbing fixtures, the number and type of toilets, whether there is a water tower, if the air conditioning system is water-cooled, whether there are commercial tenants, and how many, and the number of meters in the building. After having collected that information, the company installs a magnetic sensor, or teleprobe, on the water meter, which will feed Vantage data on the usage rates, which Vantage, in turn, will analyze for trends.
“It’s very critical that people looking at the data know the particular characteristics of each building. That’s where we find the clues as to what’s going wrong,” maintains Rothschild. “We had a situation where a building had a tremendous increase in usage, and based on the prior use pattern in the building, we were able to determine there was a major system problem.”
When the problem was investigated, it was discovered that the backflow valve on the building’s water filtration system had been left in the wrong position after it was fixed, and that unbeknownst to the co-op, “1.7 million gallons of [clean] water was diverted directly down the drain, at a cost to the co-op of $9,000.”
Debbie Ginsberg, president of Long Island-based Remote Meter Technology, which installs AMR panels, and president of Refund Consultants, which checks DEP bills for errors, says that RMT was developing a wireless sensor that could be installed in toilets and sinks in individual units – with the long-term goal of removing the cost of water usage from a co-op’s overall maintenance charge and billing people directly for what they use.
“Some people go away for months at a time. They shouldn’t have to pay the same as someone who is there all the time,” says Ginsberg, who estimates that the individual sensors, based on wireless technology, should be on-line within the next year. Along with ensuring that her clients get the $500 rebate for installing an AMR panel promised by the DEP, Ginsberg says, Refund Consultants focuses on tracking the monthly water bills and ensuring there are no errors. “We solve issues that relate to the bills themselves, and broken meters.”
To qualify for a $500 rebate, or to find out more about AMR installation, co-op boards can go to the DEP’s website: www.nyc.gov/dep and then click on “help center” (see box, p. 38).
For Flaherty, the best part about automatic meter reading is that “it increases the staff’s accountability to make sure things are done on a timely basis.” Once he gets a warning from Vantage about an upswing in usage, he can immediately alert the building staff and have the problem fixed. “It’s kind of like putting a fire under the employees and the shareholders” to get problems reported and fixed, says the management executive.