Customers of the Philadelphia Water Department rate the utility below average among 10 big water utilities in the Northeastern United States, but say it is improving, according to a J.D. Power survey released Thursday.

The 2020 U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study surveyed 547 customers of the department at the end of last year and into this year, giving a total overall satisfaction score of 729 out of 1,000 possible points, tying it with Pennsylvania American Water. Last year, it scored a 701.

From the 2020 U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study by J.D. Power.
J.D. Power
From the 2020 U.S. Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study by J.D. Power.

Respondents answered about 120 questions on quality and reliability, price, billing and payment, conservation, communication, and customer service. J.D. Power & Associates, a consumer research firm, did not publicly release a full breakdown of the questions and answers.

“The good news is that they are on the upswing,” said John Hazen, a managing director for J.D. Power. “They are starting to do better. They have improved. Everything went up year over year, but they still have some work to do to get better.”

Hazen said the Water Department scored high in billing and payment, but was seventh in quality and reliability.

Philadelphia draws its drinking water from the Delaware River and the Schuylkill, and runs it through an elaborate treatment process to remove contaminants.

The J.D. Power survey found similar issues nationwide regarding attitudes about drinking water. About one-quarter of Americans say they never drink their tap water.

The Water Department responded to the survey by highlighting its own, which has been conducted since 2016 in a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. The department said its surveys, with more than 5,000 responses, show improvements over the years.

Its survey showed that customer satisfaction rose in 2020, with 70% of customers being satisfied or very satisfied with their experience. That was up from 60% in 2018, and 67% in 2019.

And, it said, the percentage of bottled-water drinkers decreased from 41% to 36% in 2020. About 88% rated the quality of water in their home as fair or better, with 64% rating it as good or excellent. And 60% said they trusted the department to deliver safe drinking water to their homes.

“We recognize there are challenges in communicating the safety and value of tap water,” the department said in a statement. “However, Philadelphia’s water is high-quality, safe, and refreshing to drink. We are committed to communicating with our customers while continuously improving services.”

The Inquirer conducted its own test of Philadelphia water in 2019 and also surveyed residents on the street. An expert panel of taste testers compared tap water from Philadelphia against that from New York, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, and three bottled water brands.

The experts ranked Philadelphia tap water second from last, only a notch above Pittsburgh’s. Both cities draw their water from rivers and both meet all federal health standards.