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Water, water everywhere and a flood of men staring at the ground

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The first Irish Water meter being installed in Maynooth, Co. Kildare in August, 2013. Photo: Colm Mahady / Fennells.

The first Irish Water meter being installed in Maynooth, Co. Kildare in August, 2013. Photo: Colm Mahady / Fennells.

Colm Mahady / Fennells

The first Irish Water meter being installed in Maynooth, Co. Kildare in August, 2013. Photo: Colm Mahady / Fennells.

It's like the start of a bad joke. "How many men from Irish Water does it take to look at a water meter?" The answer, in this case, is seven. Four, apparently, from Irish Water itself, and three subcontractors. One day in July, I opened my front door to find a man who said he was a subcontractor working for Irish Water. There were five houses in my area with a 'red flag' on them, he explained, which indicated that a wildly excessive amount of water was being used by the premises.

Our house, which we are renting, was one such house. How many people were living in the house? he asked. Four, I answered, two of them children.

Was any water running in the house this minute, a dishwasher or washing machine? he asked. Not a drop, I replied.

Well, the meter is spinning so fast you can't read the numbers, he answered, nodding towards the front gate, where the meter is positioned.

Two days later, the doorbell went again. Another man. But not on his own. At the front gate, peering into the small manhole under which the water meter is housed, were six more men, four of them in suits. The suits, the man on the doorstep told me, were the bona fide Irish Water guys, and he was another subcontractor. Again, he told me the meter was spinning like billy-o.

He asked if he could come in and turn off the water, so they could see if the meter stopped running. He did. Nothing happened. He rang the landlord. They talked.

The men at the gate continued to stare into the hole in the ground, looking up occasionally for bursts of serious chat. None of them came to speak to me.

What was going to happen now? I asked.

Well, says the man, it depends where the leak is.

Irish Water, he reminded me, are offering a 'first fix free' offer, where they will fix leaks or damage that is adversely affecting a customer's water supply or consumption level and that's why they were bothering me, to amend the issue before metering and billing commence.

OK, I said, so if it's at the meter, on the public road, they'll fix it? Yes. In the drive? Yes, he said. Under the house? Not sure, says he, I've had several different answers to that one from the lads in Irish Water.

I took this to mean the suits, who never approached me, while my subcontractor intermediary turned back on the water and told me about the dog's abuse and threats of violence he was experiencing around the country, and how everyone was mad keen to shoot the messenger.

So what were they going to do? Well, first, they'd send someone to listen for a leak, he told me, either very late at night or very early in the morning, when the busy main road was quiet. If that yielded no answers, they'd set up a false line, to see if it made a difference to the speed at which the meter was spinning. After that, he wasn't sure.

And then, nothing, until last week, when I got the letter telling me to sign up to start paying. Paying for what? I wondered.

No one had let me know, but had the meter stopped whizzing outside the gate, or would we be, as Daniel McConnell wrote in last week's Sunday Independent, be one of those 20 homes using enough water for 9,000 people? I rang Irish Water. Or, rather, I rang an office in Cork that deals with various Irish Water queries and complaints, because the guy on the phone didn't want to be identified as being Irish Water.

Like the subcontractors on my doorstep, he was at pains to distance himself from the big boys up in Dublin, to whom he was sending my case, because he could find no record of it.

Did I ask the men at the door for ID, he asked, just in case it was a scam? I did, I said, and it would have been a fairly unusual, high-proportion-of-smart-suits scam. He forwarded my case to the big smoke.

A few days later, after the landlord had also phoned them, I got a reply. My case had been closed, the girl on the phone said, apologising.

It seemed that someone had assumed that it had been dealt with and closed the case. Assumed. So she was opening a new case and someone would be around in a few days. This was Wednesday. That afternoon, a Dublin City Council (DCC) van pulled up. I went out to the gate to see what was happening.

The man had a long metal stick, like a giant poker, with a wooden block at the end of it. He had the metal point to the ground by the meter. He had the wooden block to his ear.

"There's a leak just there," he said. He could hear it. Within two seconds of arriving. He was not wearing a suit.

On Thursday, another DCC van came. They fixed the leak. It was in the pipes outside the gate, so they were eligible to fix it, the man at the gate told me.

But the pipes are shagged, he said. And made of lead, he added, the day before the Irish Independent reported that one in 10 households may be at risk of lead contamination from their water pipes.

As he headed off, he added just one warning. There may be a further leak, along the pipes, inside the boundary of the property, but that wasn't his area of interest, he said.

He'd be sending his report to Irish Water. Then, he said, "in due course", they'd check if there was still an unprecedented volume of water being used.

The suits might well be at the gate again.

Sunday Independent