Managing Director, WA Unteres Lafnitztal
What is the water supply like in the east of Austria? Is the issue of non-revenue water a challenge in Austria also? If so, how are water losses detected? We wanted an answer to these questions and many more from Richard Vettermann, Managing Director of the Unteres Lafnitztal Water Association. In an in-depth interview, he gives us an exciting insight into the topic of drinking water supply.
What are the responsibilities of your water association?
The water association is responsible for water extraction, treatment, storage, transport to the transfer points and the entire maintenance as well as servicing. We have 11 employees for this purpose. Our association is a water board as defined by the Water Rights Act and as such a public corporation.
How many people does your water association supply?
Our association supplies the inhabitants and businesses of 18 municipalities and of two water cooperatives of an additional municipality. We also supply sections of neighbouring water associations. In total, we supply just under 11,000 households with a population of about 30,000.
How do you assess the general situation regarding water losses in the east of Austria?
The issue of water losses is an important topic nowadays. We are very much aware of the intense use of groundwater and the decline in precipitation due to climate change, particularly in east Austria. This has led to a drop in the groundwater level and thus to a decrease in water supply and groundwater replenishment. If this trend continues, it is to be feared that we will probably feel these effects even more keenly in the coming years.
Owng to these factors, cost is a major issue when we talk about water losses. Next year will see a price increase of 10 cents per cubic metre due to the current rise in electricity prices and various crises, not to mention inflation. For this reason, many municipalities are trying to minimise their losses.
How do you detect water losses?
Constant measurement of night flow is a significant parameter in this respect. We have a large number of small municipalities of about 500 inhabitants. In small communities like this every toilet flush can be detected during the night between 02:00 and 04:00 if suitable measuring devices are used. If the flow rate at night in these small communities does not decrease relatively constantly towards zero over several days, or even shows an increasing tendency, there is probably a small leak somewhere. And it's precisely these small leaks that play a major role in the long run. Our monitoring system has a detection limit of 0.1 litres/second. Below that, it doesn't work.
We notice a severe pipe burst immediately. In such a case, 100-200 cubic meters of water are gone immediately - these large pipe bursts can be checked quickly. Fittings and house connections are also potential sources of error. Here we rely on so-called correlators. These are ground microphones that allow you to hear the noise underground. Innovations in the water meter sector already make it possible to monitor pipe bursts acoustically.
What do you do to prevent water losses?
We distinguish between real and apparent losses. Apparent losses include, for example, measurement errors or errors when installing the water meters. That's why we started to switch to electronic monitoring systems with permanent data transmission back in 2010. Since 2016, we have only been using ultrasonic measuring systems or magnetic-inductive systems.
With the "Water Ecometer" application we designed, we make this flow control available to the municipalities for monitoring their own water flows. We also have 156 water meters in use. Of these, 112 are equipped with telecontrol technology - this means that the data is continuously transmitted directly to us. And around 70 water meters are used purely for monitoring leaks. What's more, our employees use the data in the control system to check the daily and, above all, nightly water consumption of all member communities for water losses.
Are hydrants a source of error when it comes to water loss?
Absolutely, which is why regular maintenance is so important. We have our hydrants inspected by Hawle Service GmbH. We also carry out thorough checks after use. The hydrants have an automatic emptying system, and as you know, when a hydrant is turned off, it gushes for about a minute. Then the gushing should stop. If it doesn't, there's a short-circuit flow across the discharge and the hydrant can leak. You have to wait that minute.
How high are your water losses?
Losses are very low in our association network. We have an average loss of 1-2 per cent. In our transmission pipeline system, we average about 5 to 6 burst pipes a year. If about 200 cubic meters of water escape with each pipe burst, that's about 1,000 cubic meters a year. The rest of the losses occur in the small leaks, but they are difficult to locate.
Are illegal water withdrawals an issue?
Water theft is indeed an issue today. Many people have pools and when they are filled illegally, thousands of cubic feet are lost. We no longer experience illegal water withdrawals through hydrants. If they do take place, though, they will be rigorously reported as water theft and damage to property. If water is taken from our hydrants, such as for fire drills, we need to know about it. Then one of our employees can go to the hydrant and check whether it has been used correctly and closed again. Thanks to our leakage monitoring, any illegal hydrant use is detected within a few minutes and the alarm is automatically sent to the operating personnel.
What are your challenges on a day-to-day basis?
Water is the most important element of our diet and vital for all of us. We cannot survive without water! For this reason, securing the water supply in the long term is one of the most essential challenges of the future. In the day-to-day operation of the water supply system, it is necessary to maintain and service the plant components continuously.
Another challenge is to run a forward-looking enterprise with the focus on sustainable operating methods. In the eastern part of Austria in particular, extracting and treating groundwater requires a considerable amount of energy. The hilly topography also means that much more energy is needed for water distribution than in the west of Austria. What's more, sinking groundwater levels and rising energy costs pose major challenges.
Last but not least, we must not forget the need to ensure good water quality. After all, water is exposed to air emissions and can become contaminated with pollution from tyre abrasion or exhaust fumes near roads. Decades of spreading sewage sludge and discharging wastewater into streams and rivers have made it necessary to monitor the groundwater constantly not only for common substances but also for the possible introduction of pharmaceutical residues.
What do you see as the biggest changes in recent years?
One big change is the issue of energy costs. In the past, energy costs were of no importance at all. Today it is necessary to invest in energy optimisation. Another point is the water supply in times of crisis. This too was never an issue in the past. It doesn't necessarily have to be a war, it could also be contamination from the air or a road accident involving pollutants. Precautions in the event of a blackout of the power supply are another aspect.
These are challenges that we did not have to deal with 30 years ago. Nor did we deal with the issue of sustainability, resource conservation or contaminated (ground) water caused by residues of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products for example. But sewage sludge and road runoff can also contaminate (ground) water. Today, we also have to tackle the issue of funding for plant renewal. We assume that the water supply network in Austria is 30 to 50 years old on average (often even older in cities), which means that considerable water losses can occur depending on the condition of the pipelines. Financing renewal will be a major challenge in the future.
Where does "your water" come from?
In our case, it comes entirely from groundwater. We have wells near the surface up to a depth of about 30 meters, and deep wells up to about 150 meters. We even have one deep well to a depth of almost 300 meters. This is also the deepest well in Burgenland, and from it we extract high-quality ice-age water.
As I have already mentioned, groundwater replenishment has been declining for several years in the east due to a decrease in precipitation. In many parts of Austria, the drinking water supply is also faced with the problem that groundwater is not only used for drinking water purposes but also for tourism and the irrigation of agricultural land.
How important is sustainability in your business?
It's very important, which is why we focused on sustainability in 2019 when we rebuilt the waterworks. Thanks to our two photovoltaic systems, the entire administration of the association is self-sufficient in energy. We use our groundwater to air condition the building in the summer, but also for heating it in the winter. This makes us energy neutral. In addition, we have been "Ökoprofit" certified for over five yearsand not only as the first but still as the sole water supplier in Austria.
Why do you choose to partner with Hawle?
Our motto is "The best water for generations". So we set ourselves the goal of being the best and therefore Hawle are our partner because they are the best, both in terms of products and in terms of employee support. The total package at Hawle is impressive. My contacts are friendly, competent and I can rely on each and every one of them. For me, trust and reliability are also two of the most important aspects, in terms of delivery time, price or availability for example. I find all of this in my cooperation with Hawle.
Thank you very much Mr. Vettermann for your time and for giving us this most interesting insight into Austria's drinking water supply!