Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Look Before You Leak Part II

Kenneth M. O’Brien

In an effort to be “fair and balanced”, I thought I would provide you with an industry response to the issue of complaints about “smart” water meters addressed in the previous article. Interestingly, it appeared the same day as the CNN report aired. Somehow this industry mouthpiece was prepared to address the story.

I find especially interesting the comment in the last paragraph, “As our technology continues to improve and we are able to improve the measurement and management of our water resources, how will we ease the growing pains for consumers who will find themselves at the receiving end of a much more accurate—and much more expensive—water bill?”

March 1, 2011
Elizabeth Cutright, Water Efficiency Editor

Last week I highlighted the plight of a Washington family who found themselves staring down the barrel of a $2,600 repair bill for a broken water main on their neighbor’s property. At the end of my blog I asked, “If the consumer is not accountable for the water loss, where will the utility find the funding for these costly repairs,” and I wondered—should we brace ourselves for similar stories?


Over at CNN, a “Special Investigative Unit” (headed by Kyra Phillips) has begun looking into the sky-high water bills that are popping up all over the country. Focusing on the situation in their own backyard—Atlanta, GA—Philips uncovers several stories that sound eerily similar to the saga playing out in Washington, including spiking water bills and monthly charges of $1,000 or more on accounts that had previously averaged $200–250 per month or less. In many cases, the recipients of those bills have been left without a smoking gun to explain the uptick in charges—no leaks, no increased usage, no unusual water demands.


Some blame has been placed on the city’s automatic metering program. As we all know, whenever a community installs an AMR/AMI system—especially when paired with new billing software—water bills tend to increase, due in large part to increased metering accuracy. In Atlanta, some of the increases were also traced to erroneously installed meters and subsequent double billings—about 1% of the meters checked by the city were improperly installed; a problem that was initially discovered in 2007 and which the city has spent the last four years rectifying.


When asked by CNN to comment on the ongoing effort to repair faulty meter installations, Peter Aman, the city of Atlanta’s chief operating officer said, “The majority of the people who complain about high water bills have some issue that is not associated with the meter. Many, many of them have either leaks or increases in usage through irrigation or pool filling that they didn’t fully understand the impact of, but that’s not to minimize the fact that we do have some cases of meters that aren't functioning properly. And, we’re addressing those on a case-by-case basis and giving people their money back. To me, the story here is there has been a complete loss of trust between the city and its citizens, and its customers.”


CNN reports the city has not found issues with meter manufacturer Neptune Technologies Inc. or Systems and Software Inc. (which installed the billing software). Aman believes the company that installed the residential meters should be held accountable because the malfunctions were traced to an improper fit between the meter itself and the meter base underneath, which points to an installation error. In 2007, the city put in a system to monitor the rest of the system upgrade in order to forestall any similar installation errors—but, according to Aman, “we’re still finding these mismatches out there.”


In the meantime, Atlanta is facing a class action suit, over 22,000 complaints by residents, and 12,291 water bill disputes. With similar scenarios popping up all over the country—including Cleveland, OH; Tampa, FK; and Brockton, MA—it’s clear that, as I suggested in last week’s blog, we may now be “reaping what we sowed—after years of undervaluing water and tying water bills to water use without also adding some sort of ‘infrastructure insurance’ surcharge.”


So what do you think? As our technology continues to improve and we are able to improve the measurement and management of our water resources, how will we ease the growing pains for consumers who will find themselves at the receiving end of a much more accurate—and much more expensive—water bill? Should water utilities be doing more to educate and aid their customers when rolling out new billing schemes or infrastructure improvements? And should we be preparing for a smart meter backlash similar to the one currently being faced by power utilities across the nation.

If you want an overview of the problems with these smart meters (for both water and electricity monitoring) from around the country, go to Complaints Board.

1 comment:

  1. Ken, thank you for working on this investigative piece. You again highlight the deficiency of our traditional local news media. How can this not be a hot topic of debate for our community?

    Time and again, Southbridge residents have corporate friendly changes forced on them by our local government. These invariably prove to be profit based decisions that adversely affect townspeople. Our resources are being exploited for financial gain and we aren't given any opportunity to contribute to the decision making process.

    This is no democracy.


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