Helping Mom: Frustrations of a high water bill

Last month my mother received a water bill that was ten times her normal quarterly payment. I felt all three aspects of her pain and frustration. First, there was the financial pain. Second, there was her indignation at the leak-related loss of what I calculated to be at least 122,000 gallons and that was just the loss BEFORE the water bill was calculated. Presumably much more was lost between that time and when her plumber was able to find and fix the leak. Water waste of this magnitude ran smack into my mother’s “waste-not, want-not kind” values. But what really seemed to put Mom over the edge was what she perceived to be her water utility’s indifference. Being the diligent daughter that I imagine myself to be, I put the following post to my LinkedIn community:

I’ve got a personal request from my mother, a lovely, environmentally conscious octogenarian (who was hoping to join us at WEFTEC this year!). She recently received one of those nasty surprise water bills that was 10x her normal use. She’s paid it, found the silent leak, and had it repaired. But she’s frustrated that her water utility didn’t alert her earlier despite her “automatic meter”, and I can’t blame her. Her utility told her it was “too expensive” to monitor their meters more often than their quarterly (you read that correctly) drive-by. There are two ways you could help me and, by extension, help my mother.

1. Can you share any case studies of cost savings / improved customer relations from the switch to AMI, particularly for smaller communities? I have an article that features DC Water and Ann Arbor MI, but it’s at least 8 years old and I’d love something more recent.

2. Have any of you water geeks installed an in-home water flow monitor that can alert the homeowner for excessive use? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned (independently of what I can find on company websites). Feel free to message me if you’d rather not make public statements.

I asked, the LinkedIn universe replied. Here’s what I learned.

Flow monitors: As it turns out, lots of folks in my sphere are looking into these IoT devices for themselves, either to help them in their water conservation efforts, to avoid flooded basements, or both. I’m not in a position to do a product review or endorsement, but my quick scan of the websites of the companies that people mentioned indicates that each of these has an app that will alert users to unusually high water use. Some products have the capability to turn the water off when a leak is detected, though those features may require installation by a licensed plumber. That seems like a really important differentiation. Here’s a quick list of the offerings that people shared with me.

Giving us a user’s perspective, Megan Chery of Environmental Incentives, LLC, writes:

“While I (fortunately) haven’t discovered any leaks, the ability check my water use in real-time and set up alerts for when we go out of town gives me peace of mind. Other benefits (at least for this water geek) include being able to check usage against my bills, understand and improve our outdoor use, and scold family members for excessive water use.”

In my mother’s case, she liked the simplicity and user-friendliness of Flume. Because she is generally at home (does ANYONE travel anymore?) the alert function was of most interest to her. In full disclosure, the good people at Flume offered to send Mom a device to try out. Stay tuned: I may have a product review coming up!

AMR and Unhappy Customers: The more involved part of my question had to do with Mom’s relationship / dissatisfaction with her water utility. Despite nearly 25 years of being their customer, this singular event has entirely colored her view of them, and not in a good way.

It started with the shock of opening her bill. Instead of a quarterly water bill of $80, this one was $800.  She immediately called her water utility to try to understand how this materialized. Her utility had installed “automatic” meters, so why didn’t they automatically alert her? Like most customers, she didn’t know that to take advantage of the full capability of an automatic meter, a community must also have AMI, or automatic metering infrastructure that can pick up meter signals multiple (hundreds?) of times per day. Instead, her community has a  “mobile” network that uploads data when a utility staffer drives (“autoMOBILEs“) by.  The meter had detailed information on her water use and when her leak started (which turned out to be underground in an abandoned section of irrigation system), but the utility didn’t upload it until weeks later, and didn’t notify her other than through the bill she received in the mail.  (Now I’m wondering if she’s set up for automatic payments. Imagine the shock of an overdrafted checking account on top of all the other frustrations!)

Her utility, serving communities along South Carolina’s coast, was doing its best. As I learned from my LinkedIn post, even some large, conservation-minded communities (who shall remain nameless here) are still stuck on manual meter readings. But even her SC utility’s best wasn’t good enough for Mom.

How could it have played out differently? My good friend Mary Ann Dickinson, founder/Executive Director of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, wrote:

“This is a terrible situation!  Most water utilities forgive the first big leak as long as the customer repairs it.  I wonder why her utility didn’t do that.  Did she inquire if that was a possibility?”

I didn’t ask Mom that, but I will now!  Similarly frustrated, Jenna Smith of King County (WA) Housing Authority wrote:

“It’s really frustrating that water utilities don’t do a better job at sharing consumption data with their customers, especially if AMRs are installed. We collect water data for around 150 multifamily properties in 25 or so different utility districts. It’s still a pretty manual process of collecting and uploading the data into a data management system. It can take months to identify leaks. What kills me is that they have the data in their billing systems but they won’t or don’t know how to share it electronically, automatically, and in a format that can be used for analyzing the data.”

AMI and Happy Customers: AMR is a step in the right direction. It speeds up the meter reading process and lowers operational expenses for a utility. But apparently it doesn’t do much for the customer. On the other hand, AMI, in the right hands, creates a partnership between utilities and their customers. Christine Boyle, founder of Valor Water and now with Xylem, sent me a 2018 piece from AWWA’s Opflow describing how AMI implementation created good customer relationships in Fountain View CA.  Returning to water efficiency expert Mary Ann Dickinson:

“Nearly every utility I know with AMI does 24 hour leak alerts to customers.  My own utility notifies me within with a day or two that I have a constantly running leak — and yes, even I get leaks.  (Everyone does)…. All AMI systems can be set to automatically issue these alerts to the customers without any real work on the part of staff… For more information on AMI systems, AWE sells a Best Practices Manual on AMI that was written for us by one of the world’s top experts on AMI, Don Schlenger.”

If there’s any question as to whether these systems make for happy customers, Ann Bartuska who works for Resources For the Future and resides Washington, D.C. writes:

“I am happy to let you know that #DCwater monitors the use and sends emails. We got notified about 24 hrs after leaving home on a trip that our water use suggested a toilet was running. Unfortunately(?) we were in Hawaii and could do nothing about it. And sure enough, it was.”

Speaking more generally, Michael Quamme of Apex Engineering, brings a North Dakota perspective:

“I have yet to hear of a case where AMI was implemented and didn’t have a good fiscal payback period and/or incredible increase to customer service.”

Often, smaller communities can feel left out of technological advances. Given that my mother’s utility serves ~25,000 connections, I was especially interested in Sierra Orr‘s comment:

“I work for the City of Big Bear Lake (CA) Department of Water. We’re a small agency serving a relatively small community (staff of 35, 16,000 connections). We have AMI and actively monitor for leaks and notify customers. We run a leak report looking for 24 hour continuous use several days per week, usually Monday through Friday. When we find them we actively investigate any that are more than more than 30 gallons per hour, visiting the property to see if any signs are visible, make sure the meter is functioning properly etc. After that we usually leave a tag on the property, call them, then send a letter. We actually require them to fix it within 30 days. If the leak is 30 gallons per hour or less we still send them a letter and let them know and encourage them to look for leaks. We are small but mighty! We have saved something like 42 acre feet per year (more than 13 million gallons) as a result of this program and effort. We also have a leak adjustment process whereby we can adjust the bill if the customer shows us proof of the leak and repair, provided it is grossly out of their normal range of use. That has some limitations too but people are immensely thankful, for both the adjustment and for us notifying them.”

Apparently today’s customer expects that their water utility is keeping pace with the information age. Detailed, instantaneous information is the expectation. And the relationship between utility and customer is going to work better for everyone when it’s approached as a partnership. If Michael Quamme’s experience, where AMI has attractive financial and customer benefits, is the norm, let’s see this technology role become the norm. We can’t afford not to.




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