The city of San Diego has spent millions of dollars upgrading water meters and some homeowners are convinced those changes are causing high spikes on their water bill.
Water Department officials have adamantly denied the city’s new smart meters or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) as having anything to do with the uptick in customer concerns.
“I knew immediately something was wrong,” said Joan, a La Jolla homeowner. She told NBC 7 Responds her water usage mysteriously tripled and led to a $1,800 charge before going back to normal on her next bill. Plumbers couldn’t find any leaks so she questioned the accuracy of her meter.
“They replaced it immediately when I started raising a stink,” she said.
NBC 7 Responds confirmed the woman’s water meter was tested by the city Public Utilities Department. According to meter testing results obtained by NBC 7 Responds, Joan’s meter passed and was working properly.
Still, NBC 7 Responds has heard from people throughout San Diego with similar complaints who also claim they had no leaks or renovations to their homes while their bills showed huge spikes in water use.
According to contracts awarded by the city dating back to the fiscal year 2010, the city has spent at least $13 million on the smart water meter system. Of that, the city spent over $300,000 on consulting services for the transition to an advanced metering infrastructure.
This transition does not come without risks. Cities across the country have experienced problems during their smart water meter transitions. In some of those cases, one expert told NBC 7 Responds the approach of retrofitting old water meters was to blame.
NBC 7 Responds asked the Deputy Director of the Public Utilities Department, Michael Vogl, about retrofitting old meters and he said, “We are not doing any retrofits.”
Vogl continued, “That's the lesson learned by other agencies and some of the nightmare experiences they've had.”
But according to purchase orders reviewed by NBC 7 Responds, the city has been buying parts to retrofit meters for the new system. The orders show the city spent thousands of dollars on buying registers for meter retrofits from two meter manufacturers, Badger and Hersey Mueller Systems Meters. The register is the measuring device that is connected to the water meter.
In November 2014, the city purchased AMI registers from Badger Meters, saying the registers were for meter retrofits, according to a purchase order obtained by NBC 7 Responds.
In an August 2016 purchase order for Hersey Mueller, the description said the order was, “...for the purchase of non-storeroom stocked AMI retrofit registers.”
Meter retrofitting was also discussed in March 2012 when the water department requested the City Council approve a contract extension with one of the city’s meter manufacturers, Hersey Mueller Meters.
In the Request for Council Action, it states, “The Public Utilities Department continues to install direct read meters as well as AMI compatable(sic) since direct read meters are less costly for the typical residential meter. The residential water customers are not anticipated to be included in the future deployment of AMI technology. However direct read meters can be retrofit with an AMI register to provide automated read capability if necessary.”
NBC 7 Responds reached out to the Public Utilities Department with questions regarding meter retrofits on Monday but the city has not responded.
“Every single service location in our service territory is going to be connected to the AMI-system by February 2020,” Vogl said last week.
Vogl said there are approximately 285,000 service locations or homes with water meters across the city and so far, 90,000 AMI-ready meters have been installed. Of those 90,000, 15,000 meters are actually connected to the AMI system, relaying water use data wirelessly.
To find out if your water meter has been replaced, click here.
Dozens of homeowners have sent NBC 7 Responds their bills, showing water use spikes occurring after new meters were installed but the city has said every water-use spike case is different and the AMI system is not a culprit, leaving homeowners searching for answers.
“I’ll stop people on the street and I’ll say are you having spikes in your water bill?” said Joan, “I passed out 25 letters in my immediate neighborhood, we need to address it.”
On Tuesday, Councilmember Barbara Bry said she will ask the Public Utilities Department to change a current billing policy and allow customers who have their account under review to hold off on paying high bills that have been challenged in full.
“I am requesting that the PUD not require full payment if the account holder is contesting the amount of their bill until the department completes its investigation and provides a response...If the customer still believes the billing is inaccurate, they should be allowed to delay full payment until the City Auditor has completed their report,” a news release from Bry’s office said.
Last week, the city auditor announced a previously planned audit of the Public Utilities Department will be expanded to include a closer look at the recent billing complaints.
On Tuesday, Eduardo Luna, the city auditor said that investigation is expected to be completed by June 30.