Extreme weather has hit water companies hard of late, most notoriously the Beast from the East. Are they prepared for the coming winter?

Water companies have been battered by some pretty extreme weather. The past year has been especially testing of their resilience to such events. No sooner had they recovered from the rapid freeze and thaw brought about by the so-called Beast from the East – which cut off more than 200,000 customers from supply for more than four hours – did they have to cope with some of the driest weather the UK has ever seen.

Now as we head into the winter, and some of the more dramatic national newspapers scream excitedly about the “return of the Beast”, all eyes will be on water companies to see how they respond.

PA Consulting water expert Richard Khaldi says Ofwat is likely to take a “much harder line” with any company not prepared. “Companies are coming off the back of a tough year operationally with both the Beast from the East in February and one of the driest summers on record,” he tells Utility Week. “Ofwat’s review of companies’ actions during the February freeze and thaw highlighted that most of the issues that occurred were within the control of companies.”

“As we head into winter, I predict that we will see Ofwat taking a much harder line should companies be overwhelmed again with weather events. Ofwat has already shown with the Thames Water Section 19 leakage undertaking that it is willing to take enforcement action if it believes a company does not have sufficient oversight or control over its activities.”

Khaldi warns companies to make sure their planning and systems are ready for winter, or else be prepared to defend themselves against charges of failing to meet their statutory obligations.

Ofwat made no bones about its disappointment at the response of some companies to the freeze-thaw incident, especially because the severe weather was forecast in advance.

A spokesperson for the regulator says it expects all companies to “show they have learned lessons and are prepared for whatever the weather brings”. “We also expect the water industry as a whole to transform how it works together in situations like these and show it can pull together to deliver for customers,” they add.

Cold weather brings with it the threat of pipe bursts as water freezes and expands. And it’s not just pipes on water companies’ networks that can burst. In many cases, it is pipes on customers’ properties. These customers are often unaware that the pipes are their responsibility, not the water company’s – so it is important that firms get communication right. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, there is also the issue of vulnerable customers who may need additional support during cold and icy weather, especially in the event of disruption to supplies.

Are companies ready for a potential onslaught coming their way?

It certainly seems so. But their preparedness will undoubtedly be put to the test as the weather worsens and the nights draw in.

Wessex Water

Wessex Water began its preparations for winter back in the summer. “Every year our preparations for cold weather start in August when we ensure we have the right vehicles and equipment in place for engineers to fix problems and help customers should we face extreme conditions,” says a spokesperson.

“During this year’s Beast from the East we were able to ensure few customers were left without water as we used our multi-million-pound water supply grid, which allowed us to get water to where it was needed. We also invested heavily in leakage detection to minimise the amount of water lost from our network.”

The vast majority of problems the company encountered in the South West ­during the latest extreme weather event were down to customers experiencing problems on pipework that they are responsible for. Wessex’s customer awareness campaign for this winter is already under way and it involves helping customers – in particular those in vulnerable situations – to protect their home by lagging pipes in cold areas, as well as knowing where their stopcock is and ­ensuring it works.

United Utilities

United Utilities insists it is ready for whatever the weather throws at it this winter. Resilience manager Niall Clarke says the company has honed its resilience and response to freeze-thaw events over “a number of extreme seasons”. The firm, which supplies seven million people in the North West, was one of the companies praised by Ofwat in a report following the Beast from the East, for its response to the incident – particularly in getting alternative supplies to communities in need.

The company has to work in some remote areas. Therefore, it says, its vehicle fleet, including a snow plough and 4×4 vehicles, is “fully winter ready”. “We’ve been working closely with operational teams to ensure adequate supplies of grit and other essentials,” says Clarke. “This winter we have built on our previous capability by increasing the number of Water on Wheels tankers from 27 to 40 and creating a new team to co-ordinate the vehicles and free up more driver time.”

The firm has also expanded the reach of its priority services scheme for vulnerable customers, including a successful data-­sharing trial with Electricity North West, which it says has given it a much better overview of customers most in need of help.

Clarke adds: “In terms of response, the weather outlook is a key feature of our daily incident manager meetings, so we are poised to initiate emergency plans from the minute the forecast comes in. That head start means that by the time the cold weather begins we are already prepared for the problems we might encounter with the thaw, with prepared communications for our customers and operational teams at all stages.

“In the longer term we are working with the Met Office and Thames Water to see what the developing science of weather forecasting can do for the water industry in future. Weather data, which gives utility companies better situational awareness, will help us anticipate problems even more accurately, so we can proactively advise and deliver support exactly when our customers need it.”

Northumbrian Water

Northumbrian Water, another high performer in Ofwat’s report, claims to be fully prepared for a cold snap. Water director Eliane Algaard says: “Colder weather conditions can lead to an increase in burst pipes, so we are taking a proactive approach to reducing leakage across our network. We have put additional resources into finding and fixing leaks and launched an online interactive leak map, making it easier for our customers to report leaks to us and track the progress of repairs.”

Like United Utilities, the company is making full use of the priority services register by encouraging its vulnerable customers to sign up, so it can ensure those most in need are still able to access water in the event of severe weather conditions.

“While our strong track record for providing reliable and resilient services was put to the test in some extreme weather conditions this year, we were recognised by Ofwat in the Beast from the East report as being a high performer, effectively delivering for our customers within our ‘business as usual’ operations,” says Algaard.

Nonetheless, the company acknowledges that there is still more it can do to improve its response to extreme weather events, and has taken on board comments made by Ofwat to make sure it is even better prepared for the winter months. “Good investment and hard work by our people have ensured that our networks and systems all perform well and are ready for the challenges that colder weather can bring.”

South West Water

Another company that has taken lessons from February’s freeze-thaw incident is South West Water. A spokesperson tells Utility Week the company has been making “extensive preparations” across its business for cold winter weather. This includes reviewing and updating its incident management procedures; ensuring it has adequate alternative water supplies and equipment; improving its information technology systems and processes; and promoting its priority services register, in partnership with other utility providers. “As the weather gets colder we will also be advising customers on how to prepare their homes for winter, using all the channels at our disposal.”

Anglian Water

During the latest freeze-thaw incident, Anglian Water suffered very few customer supply interruptions. However, the company is not complacent, and says it is ensuring its network is prepared for another severe cold snap this winter. Key to this, it insists, is driving down leakage.

“We’re recruiting 300 new roles in our war against leakage and deploying new, advanced noise logger technology across our network, which is revolutionising the way we’re finding and fixing leaks,” says Sean McCarthy, head of leakage. “And we’re using modelling technology to plan the number of engineers needed on the ground optimising our network and repairing bursts to keep taps running.”

Anglian will also be issuing advice to customers to help them wrap up their homes for winter and prevent leaks and bursts on their properties.

“This is all about being prepared should temperatures plummet,” says McCarthy. “But this is also the kind of work we’ll be continuing, whatever the weather, in order to cut our leakage target by another 22 per cent by 2025. This will take Anglian Water to world-leading levels of low leakage.”

Severn Trent

Severn Trent didn’t fare so well in Ofwat’s report. It was highlighted as not being well-prepared for the freeze-thaw. However, the company claims it is prepared for potential pipe bursts brought about by cold weather. It began a fast-tracked recruitment process in July 2018 with the aim of increasing the total number of water network repair gangs, private side repair gangs and water engineers.

This has resulted in an increase in its leakage-focused workforce, and further repair gangs will be in place by the end of this month. It has also installed more than 7,500 fixed acoustic loggers in areas of the highest risk within its distribution network, and a further 10,000 are planned to still be installed.

A spokesperson says: “Our ‘Get Ready for Winter Campaign’ has already begun [12 November], encouraging customers to lag their pipes, wrap outside taps and understand where their stop taps are. During the cold weather we found that a huge proportion of leaks were on private property, so we’re aiming our campaign at customers to hopefully help them to get prepared on their side.”

Thames Water

Thames, too, was flagged as one of the companies that didn’t perform well during the Beast from the East. The company says it has taken lessons from this and is improving its processes.

“We have listened to our customers, learnt lessons and worked with other water companies as well as engaging with experts outside the industry to understand the impact of what happened during the extreme weather earlier this year,” a spokesperson says. “This has resulted in a number of improvements to benefit our customers and get us better prepared to meet future challenges.”

What are some of these improvements? For one, Thames says it has invested in more tankers and taken on more drivers, many of whom will be given specialist training to cope with adverse weather to ensure engineers can get out in the worst conditions. It has also improved its modelling of weather events. “This will allow early escalation and time to prepare comprehensive plans ahead of any forecast adverse weather.”

What’s more, the company is developing real-time digital tools that take into account network information and customer contacts to provide a more detailed view of the impact of storms. This will allow it to react in a faster, proactive, more agile manner. And it has more social media agents working “around the clock”.

Northern Ireland Water

Elsewhere in the UK, Northern Ireland suffered heavily during the severe weather earlier this year, and Northern Ireland Water says it is prepared for the same again this winter. “We have teams and measures in place should we need them,” says a spokesperson. “NI Water repairs 6,000 burst mains and service pipes every year that are on our pipework. In winter, there can be an increase in defective pipework due to the colder weather.

“We continue to work at all times to ensure we maintain water supplies to customers as well as reducing leakage. We seek the support of customers in reporting runs of water through our dedicated Waterline number as well as asking them to check and insulate pipework on their own property.”

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