I thank the Chairman. The committee will have a submission from us and I will not read it verbatim, I will take from it the salient points. I preface it by saying that we have, at this time, constructed 645,000 water meter boxes. We also note that previous to our involvement 225,000 non-domestic meters were provided in this country in similar boxes. The majority of our boxes are grade C with 500 currently at grade B. Based on risk assessment almost all of these boxes are in footpaths, including drop sections, and sometimes in road edges. We are very happy to address the queries in relation to the following: the use of grade B and grade C; the independent testing and information that we have used to inform our design decisions; and the issue of meter reading which was referenced in the submission.
Our intention is to confine ourselves to the terms of reference set out. We are currently defending one set of legal proceedings from an individual. Obviously we will not be discussing that, and matters relating to that will not be touched on. There is some background information to give the committee a sense of the scale of the water metering programme. We also discuss specifics around the design guidance for the boundary box and the performance of the boundary boxes in practice. There is commentary on our engagement with the petitioner. In summary we have set out the broad statement that we are satisfied that we have had a very rigorous approach in respect of selection of the covers for the boundary boxes which are used in the national domestic water metering programme.
We have addressed the petitioner’s concerns on a number of occasions and we have also addressed them through representations made by elected members. The grade C plastic surface box used in the programme is designed to be three times the strength of the basic grade C box which is specified in the code. This is a material fact because once we picked the suppliers of our covers we were then in a position to have regard to the actual strength of the covers based on the manufacturer’s warranty and our own tests, which demonstrated even higher strengths. We can demonstrate that it is common industry practice outside Ireland to install boundary boxes with grade C surface boxes in the drop-down areas of footpaths. The empirical evidence from the programme - and from the previous non-domestic metering programme which was a very extensive programme and to a greater degree in more heavily trafficked areas - suggests that the failure rate of grade C covers is very small. We have had reports of failure of 14 meter boxes out of 645 that have been installed. Only seven of those related to damage to the actual lid itself. Millions of similar grade C surface boxes have been installed in similar circumstances in Britain without any reportable issues. The installation of grade C surface boxes better facilitates customers who want to access the boundary box to read the meters and to operate the stop tap if they are anxious to cut off the supply. The installation of grade C surface boxes is therefore more helpful to customers.
Not only have we set out very strict design criteria and construction criteria, we carried out specific installation training for every crew that operates with all of the contractors on the boundary box project. We also carry out post installation quality audits and these ensure that workmanship and standards of installation are particularly high. Any defects relating to installation are minimised. We have given due and proper regard in the entire process, from design through to procurement and construction management, to all of the relevant codes and standards. The departmental circular which is referenced extensively by Mr. O’Leary is not binding on Irish Water. It is acknowledged in that document that it is open to the authority to design alternatives or to develop alternatives and that it is good engineering design to follow standards such as those, in the absence of independent design or independent risk assessment. Such standards do not have to be automatically followed where good design and planning suggest an alternative equally robust solution.
Accordingly, Irish Water has taken all the normal design considerations and risk factors into account and remains fully satisfied that its approach to the installation of surfaces boxes in the drop-down areas of footpaths is the most appropriate design solution. While Irish Water acknowledges the terms of the departmental circular, we consider it objectively reasonable for us to pursue the approach we have adopted.
We were given the task by Government of installing more than 1 million water meters outside domestic properties between 2013 and 2016. Even in international terms, that was a significant undertaking and a very ambitious programme. Following robust EU procurement processes, the programme commenced on site in August 2013 and will continue until 2016. Where existing boundary boxes are already installed at a particular location, our contractors examine each boundary box and make an assessment as to whether it is suitable. For that reason, we have installed 645,000 boundary boxes. We have actually installed more than 755,000 meters. We were able to utilise approximately 110,000 meters in existing boundary boxes. Again, the vast bulk of those would be class C covers. Members will see a picture of the boundary box on the page. It is designed to accommodate the water meter and stopcock at the bottom of the box. It also has a vertical chamber, a cover and a frame, which is the subject matter of the main point at issue today. The box can be classified as grade A, B or C according to its load-bearing capacity.
I will reference the equipment supply agreements. Early on in the project, recognising that we had to deliver 1 million sites constructed, we needed to have in place very robust equipment supply arrangements in order that the equipment would be available to our contractors. We were asking the industry to do something that had not been done before. We conducted an open procurement process for boundary boxes and other materials and these were to form part of the equipment supply agreements. Our metering contractors are obliged to use materials from those agreements and this ensures a high level of quality and consistency of product and materials across all contractors on the programme. Approved boundary boxes are available to Irish Water's metering contractors, with covers that comply with either grade B or grade C loading requirements.
In terms of the establishment of those agreements, there was a two-stage procurement process, as is usually the case, with a pre-qualification stage followed by a tender stage. The tender stage included both quality and price assessment. There were no legal challenges to the manner in which the process took place and the supply agreements were established without any issues.
Arising from that procurement process, an equipment supply agreement was established for the supply of boundary boxes for the programme. During the course of it, candidates were advised that a total of approximately 1 million units would be required, that 320,000 units - the maximum estimated for any one year - would also be required and that a supplier should, therefore, be in a position to provide 100,000 boundary boxes for domestic water meters in a year. The clear intention behind this was to attract suppliers with both the factory and procurement logistics capacity to be able to make the appropriate level of equipment available to the contractors. Otherwise, it would become a constraint on the installation programme. That was consistent with the fact that we expected to peak at approximately 30,000 boundary box installations per month. We have, in fact, exceeded that number in the peak months.
Obviously, the procurement process had regard to the skills, efficiency, experience and reliability demonstrated by candidates offering their goods as part of the tender competition. Two Irish suppliers of boundary boxes, namely, Mains to Meters and Fusion Pipeline Products were selected, offering the EBCO box and the Talbot box, respectively. Both of these products are manufactured by Atlantic Plastics, part of the TALIS Group, in Wales. The grade B surface boxes available on the equipment supply agreement are formed of cast iron. The class C boxes are plastic but the class B boxes on the frameworks we are using are cast iron. The grade B boundary box is supplied by a company based in Offaly but is manufactured in France. Generally, but not exclusively, grade C boxes are typically plastic while grade B boxes are typically cast iron. However, there are plastic grade B covers.
In terms of training, it is important to say that Irish Water has the opportunity to review previous performance in respect of the installation of boundary boxes in Ireland. It was quite clear to us that when we examined situations where failures occurred, they very rarely related to the strength of the cover but instead related to workmanship, including in respect of the compaction around the chamber, the type of finish of the pavement and covers not being aligned correctly. We formed the view, therefore that it was critical to have control over the workmanship as much as the materials. We knew that the material would not be the intrinsic cause of failure in the vast majority of cases.
We established with the Department and the water services national training group a training programme for contractors' crews and all the crews have been through that training. In addition, we are satisfied that we have in place very robust processes and procedures to ensure the quality of workmanship. The level of training helps to ensure there are minimal defects and that, in fact, is the experience.
I refer to boundary box design guidelines and the history of boundary boxes. The boundary boxes gradually replaced the old stopcock chambers that had been in use from about the 1990s. The Water Framework Directive became the driver for metering of non-domestic flows. That became a matter of Government policy in the early 2000s. Between 2002 and 2009, local authorities installed approximately 225,000 non-domestic meters and boundary boxes. During that time various guidance notes were carried out and specimen contract documents and specimen specifications applied to that work.
Irish Water sought evidence of the performance of these non-domestic boundary boxes since 2002. We have established that grade C surface boxes exhibited very low levels of damage and as such replacement levels have been very low. Only a small number of grade B surface boxes were ever used. Where defects were discovered, it was evident that they were typically as a result of poor workmanship and the nature of lateral support, which is essentially compaction or, in some cases, vandalism. Grade C surface boxes were installed in commercial areas and I have made the point already that the non-domestic customer would typically be in non-residential areas where traffic conditions might be expected to be heavier.
We have some statistics from Cork County Council on repairs carried out. Again over a seven year period, 31 surface box replacements from all causes of failure were identified. They have to be viewed in the context of their being 159 boundary box replacements for other reasons. The reasons that boxes were replaced are due to things such as settlement or changes in street level, excavation work in the vicinity and so on.
I refer to the UK experience. We have regular discussions with a number of UK water utilities which have confirmed to us that the majority of UK water and sewage companies are installing grade C surface boxes as part of their respective metering programmes. Thames Water and Southern Water are the only two England and Wales companies at present that are specifically mandated by Ofwat, the regulator, for compulsory metering of domestic customers in Britain. They are carrying out significant programmes of installation and the vast bulk of them are grade C surface boxes. Thames Water, Southern Water and United Utilities have not indicated to us during our discussions with them that there are any performance issues coming up with the grade C surface boxes. We understand that none of the companies measures it specifically because it is such an insignificant issue as far as they are concerned. They have had no feedback from their operations and maintenance staff of any failure incidence of the grade C surface boxes.
In terms of codes and standards, it is absolutely true to say that a designer will always look at applicable standards, where they are available, in terms of coming up with the specifications for works. The codes and standards generally set the base limit. Irish Water considers the following factors in arriving at its conclusions. These take into account the difference in load bearing capacity for a nominal grade C cover and the nominal grade B cover. There is a range of 10:1. The basic code grade C cover is 0.5 tonnes, the grade B cover is 5 tonnes. That leaves open the fact there is a huge range of load conditions in between which would have to be addressed. Obviously, if one went for a grade B cover in all the situations where traffic might mount the footpath, one would effectively be providing a cover with much more strength than would be necessarily required. The codes make no allowance for the workmanship and supervision in respect of installation. In fact, many codes allow for factors to be included that take account of those things. They make no reference to the balance that needs to be struck between the strength of the cover, the ease of access for the customer, the accommodation of radio devices and, indeed, the reading of meters. The codes do not account for the severity of different failure modes. Where we have tested plastic covers for failure, they essentially split and stay in situ. Indeed a metal cover tends to break more catastrophically because it is more brittle. That can result in more significant health and safety issues. The codes refer to locations accessible to vehicles but give no particular guidance as to the level of vehicle traffic.
The designer is obliged to consider all circumstances relevant to the design. Irish Water recognises that there were factors that had to be considered that were beyond the scope of situations considered in the available guidance.
The petitioner has referenced Circular BC 6/2009, that details the specification for surface boxes. The suggestion is that Irish Water is inappropriately acting in violation of the circular. The circular is not binding on Irish Water. It is primarily addressed to planning authorities and building authorities. It has been developed from a developer and housing perspective rather than a water services metering and customer viewpoint. In any event it is a general circular which requires to set out guidance for all circumstances in which these might be used, which would not have the considerations of design and the control of workmanship and so on, that is practised by us. The circular contains the default specification as far as we are concerned for the installation of surface boxes in the absence of specific design and location specific risk assessment. It is a well established practice that objectively justifiable and reasoned designs can diverge from such non-binding guidance if such design is technically sound and grounded on a rational understanding of the products being used, the risks relating to that product and the situation in which it is being installed. Given the scale of the programme, the public money being expended, it was incumbent on Irish Water to design the most technically suitable and efficient solution, having regard to all relevant material factors.
As officials from the Department are present, I will now move on to the manufacturer's guidance. The equipment supply agreement in respect of the provision of grade C and grade B surface boxes for the programme was established prior to Irish Water concluding its full technical opinion as to the appropriate location for the installation of grade C surface boxes or indeed grade B boxes. Our current approach is founded to a large extent on the proven load bearing capacity of our grade C surface boxes used in the programme rather than the minimum load capacity of a theoretical product. We understand that the manufacture of the grade C surface boxes used on the programme has supplied something in the order of 16 million of these products to the UK and Ireland and that it is common practice to install them in the drop-down or cross-over areas of residential footpaths.
Irish Water has been informed by the supplier of the grade C surface boxes that they have had practically no reports of issues with covers sited in the drop-down areas. Our experience in the programme to date is that we have installed more than 644,500 grade C boxes compared with 500 grade B boxes, of which we have reports of 14 broken covers. We have also obtained confirmation from Atlantic Plastics, the supplier of the boundary boxes that the installation of a boundary box in a drop-down area of a footpath will not in this instance be deemed to be a breach of warranty conditions. They are satisfied that the warranty holds for boxes in that circumstance. We are aware that UK water companies from time to time give direction and specification as to products used by developers on their behalf. They do sometimes specify the higher strength material. Again that takes account of the fact that they are anxious to mitigate against the risk of poor workmanship in that uncontrolled situation. These variables do not arise in the context of boundary boxes being installed pursuant to our programme and therefore these documents are not particularly relevant to us.
In terms of load testing, the grade C surface box used in the programme is designed as three times stronger than the minimum requirement. Representatives of Irish Water have observed the surface boxes tested in controlled conditions to more than four times the load stipulated in the British standard. The grade C surface boxes used by Irish water withstood loads in excess of two tonnes before cracking and loads in excess of three tonnes before fracturing. To put it in context, a large family car would be very unlikely to exert a wheel load greater than 0.5 tonnes to 0.75 tonnes. It is very unlikely that all of that load would transfer on to the small area of the surface box.
We also have had independent load testing carried out on the grade C surface box, which has been proven to withstand loads of more than two tonnes. As part of the test, a stone was placed on a surface box and a standard car tyre used to impose the load on the stone. The result of that test was that the care tyre deformed around the stone and came into contact with the surface box. The test was abandoned when we were afraid the tyre would actually explode.
In terms of the customer, there are clear benefits for customers where the grade C surface box is used because it is significantly more convenient for them to access the meter and the outside stop-valve, which is in the surface box for their property. The surface box is not only lighter than the grade B metal cover, it also can be levered using a screwdriver, like the way one uses a screwdriver when opening the lid of a paint pot. The metal surface box needs a set of lifting keys that have to be provided to the customer and can easily be mislaid. The metal surface box also needs an element of manhandling with the resulting risk of injury and with fingers being trapped. Safety is a key priority for Irish Water in everything it does. Safety in construction has been a particular focus of these contracts as it is on every contract.
It is important to note that the grade B surface boxes are not indestructible in themselves. We have referred to the consequences of catastrophic failure of a grade B box.
In terms of performance on the ground, we have installed approximately 645,000 boundary boxes to date. From that figure of 645,000 boundary boxes, there have been 14 reports of broken surface boxes. That is a tiny percentage. The reasons for the individual failures are varied and Mr. Kevin McSherry can discuss it, if members wish. In terms of the consequence of selecting a grade C box, it is insignificant. We have been specifically monitoring a sample of grade C surface boxes installed in the drop down areas of residential driveways. We have 50 grade C surface boxes that we have been keeping under observation since November 2013, which is almost two years ago, and no visual defects in any of these surface boxes have been recorded. Such an audit clearly supports the approach we have taken in respect of the installation of these covers.
In terms of the role of contractors, I reference the photographs on the page that show the concrete slab within which the cover sits. The concrete slabs are constructed to a very high standard and provide huge rigidity to the cover and frame and the overall installation is very strong. In accordance with the installation contracts, the final design responsibility rests with the contractor. The contractors decide between a grade B or a grade C box, based on a risk assessment that they carry out. The decision is generally based on engineering assessment of the loading conditions of each location. That allows for the fact that prior to contract, it is not possible to predict all of the situations and circumstances that might arise, so a degree of discretion is left with the contractor who might typically install a grade C surface box where there is pedestrian traffic and occasional light vehicle traffic, parking manoeuvres and so on. On the other hand, a grade B surface box might be considered where there are risks of occasionally higher wheel loads - in other words, where there is clear evidence of heavy vehicle access that might access the footpath or the drop down.
Our audits generally concur with the design decisions being made - in other words these are rational, sensible decisions and it is clear on what basis they have been made. The contractors as designers have demonstrated that where the locations permit, the lighter cover is the most appropriate surface box to install. It is also fair to say that when they look at a particular location, they will from time to time move the location of the meter box closer to the wall of the building to reduce the risk. That has been part of the approach that has been taken to ensuring there is no difficulty with the grade C box as the standard box solution. It is also important to say the contractors bear the risk of the damage to the boxes for a number of years and, as such, it would not be in their interests to select a grade C cover if the situation warranted a grade B cover.
In terms of supervision and quality control, both Irish Water and its contractors have committed significant resources to supervision and quality auditing to ensure that the finished work is of a very high standard. We also have developed extensive quality assurance and control resources to conduct follow up checks on finished installations. Any where a defect is encountered, it is repaired at the contractor's cost. That is part of the contract. Our field inspectors carry out frequent audits of contractors work for that purpose.
I refer to meter reading. Our meters feature automatic meter reading, that is, AMR technology, where a transmitter sends a meter reading from the meter to a receiver unit in one of Irish Water's meter reading vehicles. This means that meter readers generally do not need to access the cover of the meter box. They can read the meters from a passing vehicle. As a result of that efficiency, 11 meter readers can now read the entire suite and get a full meter reading of all the domestic meters we have installed to date. To maximise the benefit of remote meter reads, it is important to enable the automated reading of the meters to be conducted effectively. Our considerations fed by logic and previous studies indicated that while there was no question that the grade B box precluded the reading of the meter, the less dense the material, the better from the point of view of the efficiency and certainty of being able to read it. That said, we have now completed three quarterly cycles of readings and our systems have not reported any difficulty regarding the 500 meters with grade B surface boxes. However, we are a little careful in respect of regarding that as conclusive because these are 500 individual boxes, which are not in close proximity like the grade C boxes. Therefore, we are not making an assumption that there would be no issues and difficulties, although it has to be said that our current experience is that there is no difficulty.
Irish Water does not consider that there is sufficient empirical evidence from the programme to determine definitively whether more wide spread use of grade B surface boxes would have a negative impact on our ability or efficiency in conducting the reading.
In the past we have engaged with a petitioner who produces a form of boundary box with a grade B surface box. Both Irish Water and the Department have engaged on the matter, directly and through third parties. We have also carried out a pilot scheme and provided a provisional report. A final report will issue to him shortly. We are continually in the business of looking for new and innovative products. Clearly, we will conduct a future procurement process for the delivery of covers and meter boxes. However, currently we have our suppliers on contract and the contract will continue for the next 12 months. We have also had extensive engagement, detailed in our presentation, with Oireachtas Members on this question.
The petitioner has referred to a High Court case in respect of installation of a grade C surface box at a particular location and acknowledges that he was party to assisting the particular plaintiff in his action. We acknowledge that a settlement was made in that case. It was made for pragmatic reasons as we manage all legal cases pragmatically in the best interests of our customers. However, we absolutely refute the statement that the question was conceded as to the appropriateness of a grade C box in general or at that location. In fact, we made our own technical assessment of the location and concluded that a grade C box would have been used. Again, acting reasonably in that situation, as part of the agreement we agreed to provide a grade B box and have done so. That was in the interests of resolving the matter expediently and cost effectively. It was a pragmatic decision to install a grade B box.
In general, we are satisfied that all relevant design considerations have been taken into account in this huge programme of work and the selection of grade C surface boxes. We conclude that not only our experience but also the previous experience in Ireland and general experience in the United Kingdom demonstrate that the grade C surface box of this standard is perfectly suitable for use in the drop-down areas of footpaths and footpaths generally. We have taken full account of all design considerations in arriving at our conclusions. In that regard, we have followed through on all of the detail, from design through specification, the training of our offices and quality assurance, to ensure there is no deviation in the standard. Customers can access their meter box readily by the use of a screwdriver. It is important they can access not just the meter for reading but also the stop tap. We have 645,000 installations of our own, with no more than 14 failures. We reference the 225,000 pre-existing meters with class C covers.
We believe we are fully in step with the general practice involving millions of meter boxes across the United Kingdom. Therefore, I am satisfied that we have offered the best value solution to our customers and the correct technical solution.