2016 Benchmarking survey: Leaks, efficiency, costs
February 16, 2017

The average water and wastewater utility has nine leaks per 100 miles of water distribution system piping every year, according to AWWA's 2016 Benchmarking Survey. Tip-top systems experience just three leaks in that distance, while those at the bottom have 24. 

Perhaps you’ve wondered if your utility measures up in terms of employee efficiency. At the best-performing utilities, each worker delivers an average of 0.29 MGD of potable water, while those at the low end deliver just 0.16 MGD per worker. The rate for employees at average-performing utilities is 0.21 MGD.

The Association recently released its annual Benchmarking Survey, which tracks metrics ranging from operations and maintenance costs to energy consumption, customer service complaints, regulatory compliance, and more. A staple at the Association for more than two decades, the survey is a popular tool for utility managers and municipal leaders who want to gauge their own performance and guide improvement efforts.

“This is a learning tool,” said Terry Brueck, chair of the survey’s advisory committee. “The real definition of benchmarking is learning from others. It’s a basis for improvement, rather than saying, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay.’”

George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water, said benchmarking helps his utility carry out the ambitious strategic vision developed by staff and the board of directors. 

“In order for us to achieve our goal of being a world-class utility, the board expects us to implement action plans and monitor accomplishments through regular reporting of key performance measures,” Hawkins said.

Five data categories

The latest survey, entitled Benchmarking Performance Indicators for Water and Wastewater: 2016 Edition, covers the fiscal year period from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016 and reveals data in five areas: organizational development, customer relations, business operations, water operations, and wastewater operations.
The FY 2016 Benchmarking Survey is open through March 15. Utilities that participate receive a complimentary custom report that shows their individual performance indicators against aggregate data for all participating utilities in the same service category – water, wastewater, or combined systems.

The survey process itself reaps benefits, said Stephanie Passarelli, an AWWA engineer and the report’s technical editor.

“This isn’t just a way for utilities to compare themselves to other utilities,” Passarelli said. “By simply going through the process of responding to the survey, they can see how they’re performing year to year.”

As more utilities participate in the survey, the data will become richer and even more meaningful in subsequent years, Brueck said.

This year, the 242-page report also provides several enhancements and calculations for evaluating your utility’s operational performance, said Frank Roth, vice chair of the survey’s advisory committee. The Water Loss metric is now aligned with the AWWA Water Audit Software, and the Employee Health and Safety Severity Rate -- which measures the rates of days lost to injury -- has been restored.

But especially impressive about this report, Roth said, is “its 10-year time frame, which allows users to gauge how the recent recession impacted performance in many metrics.”

More survey highlights

The performance indicator levels are provided as quartiles, specifically the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles. A sampling of the survey’s highlights for combined water and wastewater operations includes:

The amount billed for 7,500 gallons per month ranged from $27.86 in the top quartile, to $46.38 in the bottom quartile. The median was $35.94 per month.
The average residential wastewater bill at combined operations ranged from $27.30 in the top quartile, to $45.25 at the bottom. The average was $34.18.
The average number of errors per 10,000 billings was 1.7 at the top-performing utilities, 27.2 at the bottom, and 11.0 at the median.
Technical service complaints for every 1,000 accounts averaged 6.6 at the median, 2.0 at the top utilities, and 34.5 at the worst-performing.
Operating costs per million gallons of potable water delivered ranged from $1,726 in the top quartile to $3,683 in the bottom. The median was $2,305.
The number of breaks per 100 miles of pipe ranged from four at the best-performing utilities to 18 at the worst performing. The median was seven.
The percentage of employees eligible for retirement ranged from 11.5 percent to 31.1 percent, with a median of 19.9 percent.

While the survey does not reveal specific information for individual utilities, it does list the participating utilities as well as a breakdown of some regional data. Because there will never be perfect utility-to-utility comparisons, the report notes, utilities must understand their operating environment and characteristics so they can effectively use the data.

“Most utilities will identify with some of the performance indicators, but not all,” said Brueck, pictured above. “Still, the data is valuable in the sense you’re not starting from scratch for everything.”

In the end, Brueck said, transparency is a good thing. 

“To be able to say there’s room for improvement, and to identify where the improvement can be targeted, is the most important reason for doing this.”

Do you have a comment or story idea for Connections? Please contact Ann Espinola at aespinola@awwa.org or at 303-734-3454.