ByJeff Hicks, TheRecord.com
CAMBRIDGE — You need a safe cracker’s ear to find and fix Cambridge’s $90-million in potentially leaky pipes. You need a stethoscope, too.
Place the listening bell on a suspect valve or water hydrant.
Then, like an old-west bandit trying to discern a coming gold train with an ear to the rail, listen hard for the sickening sound of millions in liquid cash trickling out of ratepayers pockets and into the ground.
“You can actually listen over a pipe on the ground,” public works commissioner George Elliott said. “If you have to you can drill a port hole, get right on the pipe and listen on the pipe. There are dozens of ways.”
And all of them are saving the city $700,000 a year in money that used to disappear into the dirt one drip at a time.
Four years ago, Cambridge lost about 25 per cent of the $13-million worth of water purchased from the region to big and little leaks in underground pipes.
That means the city was paying $3.25-million a year for water it never got to use.
Adding new staff, including nine last year, and hunting for these leaks before they become massive gushers or sinkholes has meant big savings.
In 2012, water-leak losses were reduced to 19 per cent.
And Elliott hopes they can eventually be trimmed to 10 per cent one day, which would save the city an additional $1.5 million a year.
So the city’s leak detectives literally have their ears to the ground. The city is even doing preventive maintenance rather than just waiting for a geyser. The preventive approach has been put in place over the past decade, resulting in eight- to 10-per cent water rate hikes in the city in recent years. But the payoff, Elliott says, has finally arrived.
“We’ve turned the corner,” he said. “We’re not just responding to emergencies. We are actually going out and looking for things.”
It used to take 18 months for city crews to get to a leak. Now, it takes just one. That’s 17 months worth of water savings. And pipes that are old or prone to leaks are even being lined before they start to leak.
Of course, the price has been high to beef up the water services department. The budget has gone from $36 million a year to about $52 million and will go higher to get the city’s water pipes in good shape. More rate hikes — higher than seven per cent — were expected in the next three or four years.
But, Elliott says, there is a chance to give ratepayers a break, thanks in part to the savings in lost water. A program to replace old meters, which can slow down over time and miss water usage, also brings in more cash.
Water budget reserves are now up to $14 million.
“We’ve got this extra money, let’s start using it now,” Elliott said. “We don’t need to increase the rates as much.”
This year, the average monthly water bill in Cambridge jumped by about $7 to $82. That’s 9.5 per cent. The year before, the increase was 10 per cent.
Turning leaks into relief could ease the rates for 2014 and beyond.
“When you go looking for problems, you can find them and fix them before they become big problems.”