Unusual water bills could receive outside audits

Detection specialist helped in Davidson case

by Frank DeLoache

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility officials have told local leaders they are prepared to launch a new customer-service program in which an independent leak-detection specialist will help resolve cases where the reason for a high bill is not apparent.

A north Mecklenburg citizen task force originally proposed the idea of such audits by independent inspectors a year ago, as a means of assuring customers the utility really wanted to find an answer to their questions. However, the utility’s standing Advisory Committee, composed largely of developers or those tied to the development community, had rejected the suggestion as unnecessary.

But in ongoing meetings with Davidson Mayor John Woods and Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte, utility officials have agreed to hire American Leak Detection Co. “as a last resort” in trying to resolve billing disputes, utility spokesman Vic Simpson said. Utility administrators expect to sign a contract for about $40,000 with the company this week.

“It will be used to help the utility department as a last resort, not a first resort, to help billing disputes,” Simpson said. “This is for cases where the customer really is making a case that they did not consume the water and might have hired their own plumber who did not find a leak.

“… We can’t do this on a big scale, and we don’t want to give the impression that we can apply this often. We have a lot of other processes in place that we will use first, but this firm will help us on some of these mysterious and confounding situations.”

Woods, Tarte and several other north Mecklenburg residents have continued meeting quarterly with utility Director Barry Gullet, Miller and other top utility staff. “We’ve been pushing (Gullet) pretty hard” to create the specialized leak-detection program, Woods said.

“We see this as a very positive step in helping discover the various problems,” Woods said. “Some of the analyses have found problems with the customers – leaks, excessive use. However, there are others that seem to defy logic, and they can’t explain it and neither can anybody else. That leads to lack of faith and all sorts of problems.

“…We’re working very diligently with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities officials, and they are being cooperative with us.”

The utility, like other agencies and businesses, has taken significant budget cuts and doesn’t have the staff it needs to serve 250,000 customers, Woods said.

In his most recent town e-newsletter, Tarte spoke of the meetings with Gullet and his staff, and the Cornelius mayor invited customers to e-mail or call Gullet directly with questions. Tarte also asked customers to copy him on their e-mails. Only six customers copied him on e-mails to the utility director, which Tarte takes as a good sign that more questions are getting answers. He said Gullet responded quickly to each e-mail.

Simpson said representatives of American Leak Detection Co. attended a meeting with River Run residents in November, and utility officials used the company in a couple of cases.

In each instance, the specialists found a leak, Simpson said. “In one case, the customers had a very high spike and then the bill might have gone down partially in the next month,” he said. “The homeowner really felt they were not getting a fair deal. We couldn’t find the leak and couldn’t convince the homeowners that the water was going through the meter accurately. I believe they hired a plumber who couldn’t find anything. But American Leak Detection found a leak in the irrigation system, and until we dug up the pipe and showed him the water squirting out, the customer still didn’t believe us. It just illustrates how complex theses cases can be.”

Simpson also suggested more homeowners take advantage of water-efficiency studies the utility has offered for years. Maeneen Klein, the utility’s water conservation manager, will perform surveys at individual homes or for a community that invites her, Simpson said. For instance, she’s meeting with residents of the Giverny community in south Charlotte this spring to help them better understand how they can monitor and conserve water use.

“This is a service provided for many years where we can work with individuals or neighborhood groups to look at their usage, do a visual inspection of their system to look for opportunities to be more efficient,” Simpson said. “And sometimes she find leaks.”

Klein serves on the state irrigation licensing board, is a certified master gardener and essentially offers homeowners “water efficiency audits.”

Homeowners interested in that service can contact Klein through the utility’s website, www.cmutilities.com, by searching for “liquid assets efficiency audits.” Or a customer can call 311 and ask for that service.

Jerry Doyle, president of the Giverny Homeowners Association, has put a lot of information on the association’s website, www.ouronlineschools.org/Giverny/Water.htm, to help residents examine their water use and calculate their bills.

Doyle believes another solution for people who irrigate their lawns is installing a separate irrigation meter that will separate that water use from other regular home use, Doyle said. Being able to monitor irrigation or pool water use by itself would provide homeowners with another tool for spotting problems.

But installing a separate irrigation meter is expensive. Doyle said the utility would serve its own interests by working out a program that reduces a homeowner’s cost of installing the separate meter.

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