Audit: Few meters inaccurately reporting customers’ water use

by Andrew Batten

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities’ audit found that less than 1 percent of water meters were incorrectly reporting customers’ water use, utilities director Barry Gullet told Charlotte City Council on Monday, Oct. 4.

The audit did find nearly 2,000 of the 9,011 meters checked needed some type of maintenance.

A north Mecklenburg task force partly blamed the meters, specifically electronic registers and transponders used to gather customers’ water data, for higher-than-normal water bills. The equipment allows utility employees to collect customers’ monthly water use wirelessly via a transponder.

A contractor hired by the department tested 9,011 of the utilities’ 250,000 meters throughout the county this summer as part of a broader investigation of the utilities’ customer service.

Of the 9,011 meters audited, investigators found 10 cases where meters were overreporting water use and 48 cases where meters were underreporting a customer’s water use.
In the 10 cases where the department was overcharging, the utility issued refunds. The department did not charge customers when the meters under reported, said Vic Simpson, utility spokesman.

“I don’t think there should be concerns that the electronic readings are a problem because they’ve proven to be accurate at a fairly high rate,” Simpson said following Gullet’s presentation.

In addition to the field inspections, the department set up 12 meters in its shop and continuously ran water through them.

“We were trying to make those meters misbehave,” Gullet told the council. “We couldn’t make them get better or worse. We’ve determined that our system is performing quite well.”

The north Mecklenburg task force said inaccurate water bills could result from outdated electronic equipment that has a 15 percent failure rate – at least three times higher than the industry standard – and doesn’t work well in wet, concrete boxes in the ground.

In some cases, the task force said, the electronic components appear to underreport a customer’s water use for months at a time. When an incident causes utility employees to either read the meter manually or switch out the old equipment, workers usually get an accurate reading and bill the customer for all the inaccurate readings at once, the report said.

The audit found 1,982 meters that had problems similar to those outlined in the task force report. The problems included radio transmission problems, installation issues, buried meter boxes, dislodged equipment or water, dirt or debris in meter boxes.

“What we saw in these 9,000 audits is that typically these meters led to an accurate bill, but at the same time, 22 percent of the time we had to do some type of maintenance,” Simpson said. “And that told us we’ve got to get ahead of it. Sooner or later, those covered meter boxes or cut wires are going to lead to a problem.”

The department is addressing those issues through an ongoing audit program that will investigate about 500 meters a year.

Officials also are reviewing more potential problem water bills before they’re sent to the customers, Gullet said. The department’s billing system kicks out about 30,000 bills per month that may be incorrect – either because they’re too high, too low or the meters didn’t show any water use.

Of those, utility workers check about 13,000 per month at the meter box. That’s an increase from about 8,500 monthly investigations before high water bills became an issue, Gullet said.

The department also is implementing a program that will notify customers about higher-than-normal bills before those bills are sent.

City council members raised concerns Monday night about how customers were treated by 311 operators when the customers call with questions about their water-sewer bills.
“All of us just got flooded with calls when this first started, and it’s still happening,” Councilman Andy Dulin said.

“For some reason we are still telling people we are going to cut off their water if they don’t pay, even if there is a large disconnect” between bills from month to month, Councilman Warren Turner said.

The department is not planning to institute a moratorium on cutting off a customer’s service, as the north Mecklenburg task force suggested, but the utility is going to provide customer-service representatives with more information about customer’s bills, Simpson said.

“311 has been involved on the Customer Service Evaluation Project from the get-go,” Simpson said. “They are definitely aware of the concerns raised, and they are addressing those. Some of the frustration was courtesy. Some of it was a level of frustration that they couldn’t get much information that was timely or complete.”

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