Aqua Ohio plans to install a $1.2-million water-softening system and do other improvements aimed at softening Blacklick Estates residents' complaints about water quality. Aqua Ohio, install,

Aqua Ohio plans to install a $1.2-million water-softening system and do other improvements aimed at softening Blacklick Estates residents' complaints about water quality.

Company representatives joined Madison Township trustees at a public meeting April 24 to announce the infrastructure upgrades, which will include new delivery lines and a new reverse osmosis water softening system.

Work on the upgrades is expected to begin later this summer and be finished before the end of the year. Once the work is complete, Aqua Ohio Regional Manager Gregg O'Dell said customers will be able to disconnect their in-home water softeners.

Huber Ridge is another development served by Aqua Ohio which had a reverse osmosis system installed to treat issues related to hard water. O'Dell said the system was installed in 1996.

While the system planned for Blacklick Estates is similar, technology has come a long way, he said, meaning the cost to install and maintain the system will be lower and there will be better regulation of treated water.

"We currently have a hardness of about 400 PPM (parts per million), which is extremely hard water," O'Dell said. "We're aiming for 150 PPM, which is the right balance between hard and soft water -- so this investment will make the water quality problems go away."

Consultant Jeff La Rue said Aqua Ohio is looking forward to delivering better water to customers.

"We're enthusiastic about the investment Aqua is about to make and we think we'll make about 90 percent of the complaints go away with this," he said. "Before we purchased this system from Ohio American Water, our company president was aware of the water quality issues, so really, even before the purchase, Blacklick Estates was on our radar to figure out what we could do."

Trustee Victor Paini said before Aqua Ohio bought Ohio American Water, trustees formed a joint committee with residents called the Blacklick Estates Community Advisory Council, which has since been meeting with Aqua Ohio representatives monthly to discuss possible resolutions to three primary issues: improving customer service, lowering costs and resolving water quality issues.

The purchase of OAW a year ago nearly doubled the number of Aqua Ohio's customers to 150,000 statewide, according to La Rue. That includes the 3,000 customers who use the Blacklick Estates water system.

"We've met with the group, and one of the first things we've done is partner with Western Union to make bill paying easier and added a call center, all while reducing administrative staff," La Rue said. "These steps have reduced costs while adding better customer service."

According to La Rue, the savings are reflected in a lower service fee. OAW was charging $9.55 per CCF, and had requested an increase to $11.50 per CCF. Aqua Ohio is currently charging $8.50 per CCF -- in part, La Rue said, because of the reduced administrative overhead.

One complaint raised at the April 24 meeting was that Blacklick Estates residents already pay significantly more than Columbus residents.

"The city of Columbus spreads their costs for three water plants across 2 million customers, but Blacklick Estates only has 3,000 customers and one water plant, so it's an economy of scale," LaRue said.

He said the company is in talks with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to allow it to spread the $1.2 million cost of this project out across all 150,000 Aqua Ohio customers in the state. Normally, the cost would fall only on the Blacklick Estates customers.

"There won't be any extra charge for this work on anyone's bill until the next rate case decision can be made, and we don't know when that will be or what the decision in regards to that," La Rue said. "I think the cost to Huber Ridge customers was about $1.27 per CCF."