Are water meters infallible?
March 25, 2009 3:55 PM   Subscribe

My water company says that I used 81 units of water last month, which in Minneapolis costs about $500. Since moving into our house in Sept. of 2007 we have never used more then 5 units in a month. I have searched my house, and I can't find anything that would account for that much water usage and if there was an issue, it is no longer occurring because my water meter has only incremented by one unit since this reading was taken 10 days ago.

I simply don't believe that we used that much water, but my water company is telling me that the water meter is infallible and will not adjust the bill. They said I can have the meter checked, but because it is incrementing normally now, I don't expect they are going to find a problem. I am wondering if anyone has gone through a similar experience, or if anyone knows if there is something that could cause the register on a water meter to suddenly increment several thousands of gallons without water actually passing through?
posted by moseymose to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
were all your previous readings and bills based on estimated readings or did the water guy come out and read your meter every month?
posted by Stynxno at 3:56 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

They come out and read the meter once a month using a radio transmitter.
posted by moseymose at 4:10 PM on March 25, 2009

but my water company is telling me that the water meter is infallible and will not adjust the bill.

That must be some water meter to be infallible.

A similar thing happened with me and Con Ed. Very high high electric bills. (not 500 dollars, but about double or triple of what they were before) They checked the meter. Meter was fine. Then the meter reader showed me "how" to read a meter, and told me to trip all my circiuts for one day and leave them tripped for the whole day and read it again. If the needle moved then someone was stealing "my" electricity. Turns out nobody was, and I chalked it up to my very energy intensive laptop being on 24/7 (This was the mid 90s.)

I tell you this to tell you to be persistent. From 5 to 81 units is pretty absurd. I mean, I am surprised they just wouldn't investigate that on their own because it is absurd. How many households use that kind of water? I too would like to know whether the guy came out and read the meter.

Did you ask (demand that) and if he did read the meter did you ask (demand) that it be re-read? Did you ask what their criterion for "infallibility" is?

You might have to document everything, and speak to supervisor, and then to supervisor's supervisor. I don't know if it is like a credit card, where they can't report you as delinquent if you are disputing a charge, but a paper trail will be a good defense if it comes to that.

I am betting, though, that if you speak to someone else, or someone with a position in authority, they'd say, "Wow, Mr. Moseymose, that is ridiculous, we'll send someone out for a re-read and a test of the meter right away."
posted by xetere at 4:10 PM on March 25, 2009

My neighbor had this happen. He asked if I was getting absurd bills. He called a plumber to check out his system. Nothing unusual. He kept pressing his case and even talked to the town about it. Eventually he settled with the h2o company for less than half the bill.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:17 PM on March 25, 2009

My girlfriend had an absurd water bill when she left an old flat and refused to pay the bill, telling them again and again that the amount was way too high for two people who didn't use much water. They eventually investigated the amount and reduced it from ~£500 to ~£110, so it's worth badgering them to check and re-check the amount.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:17 PM on March 25, 2009

1 unit equals 748.5gal (100cu ft) of water. So you used 60,630 gallons of water last month according to the utility , or 90gal / hour, for the entire month of February. That's not a drip. That's a 1/2" pipe running at 1.5 ft/sec. Are you sure it's not like Stynxno said, an estimate? Did somebody slip a digit in the meter reading?

Does your sewage get metered? Or is that just based on water in?
posted by defcom1 at 4:18 PM on March 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

OK, so you know it's not an estimated reading, because the City of Minneapolis states that:

"Most of the water meters in Minneapolis have a remote reading device that allows the City to either obtain a reading over the phone line or by electronic radio transmission. Meters without remote devices require a meter service worker to enter the property to obtain a reading.

Automatic meters report readings once a month. If you have a phone-type reporting device your phone line must be working for the meter to report. Properties without remote devices will have their meters read each month as well."

So no matter what, they're checking it once a month. Fine. The reason they say the METER is infallible is this:

"Your water meter is built especially to count water and it registers only when water is running through. It's accurate, yet simple. Nothing intricate about it, so it doesn't easily get out of order." [from another city's site]

Sure, that makes sense, that the hardware isn't that complicated. What they're glossing over is the data itself. What if there was some kind of glitch with the RF unit and/or the reader screwed up, a database error, someone didn't run a process, who knows. I find it very difficult to believe that someone went from an average of 5 units (3740 gallons) to 81 (60588 gallons).

Seriously - keep pressing them. You're not alone in this predicament.
posted by HopperFan at 4:34 PM on March 25, 2009

Maybe you have a leak somewhere? We had absurdly high water bills caused by a leak in the pipe under our front garden. I'm afraid I can't help with how you'd check for this though, I assume you'd have to get someone out to test the pipes.
posted by lucidium at 4:37 PM on March 25, 2009

I dont know necessarily how or where in the system the meter reads water going to your house, but there may be a leak underground somewhere, or under the house. I dont know how that could be checked, but you might talk to the water company about having someone investigate that.
posted by CTORourke at 4:37 PM on March 25, 2009

Water meters for houses, so far that I know, are outside by the curb. They measure water as it moves from the main to the pipes in the house. A leak in the house pipes would show this movement of water even if all the taps are closed. Therefore, this would not explain why the OP had such a dramatic increase in usage, only to resume normalcy later on.

From personal experience, we had the meter itself break outside our home, and it leaked gallons of water before the substantial bill showed up. However, in this event the water company gladly forgave the amount once we determined that the meter itself was defective. We discovered the break, called it in, and the the water company fixed it.

Fast forward a few years, and one early morning before I left for work, I heard the distinct sound of running water coming from the street. Turns out my next door neighbor's meter had broke, so I called the water company's emergency number to have it fixed. I never mentioned it to my neighbor, and I don't know if the water company did or if they just showed up, repaired the break, and left.

Perhaps that might explain why your water usage is normal now? Any helpful next-door neighbors? Try and see if there was any work order on your street, or your house specifically, from the water company. I don't know if they keep track of these things, especially if someone else called it in.
posted by CancerMan at 4:52 PM on March 25, 2009

My guess is that the electronic reading of the meter was incorrect. As defcom1 said, it would be very difficult to use 2000 gallons of water a day and then to see little movement the next few days. Even if your water meter is normally read electronically, you should also be able to read it manually. Check to see if the meter reading on your water bill matches what you see on the meter. Or request the water department to make a manual reading.
posted by JackFlash at 5:13 PM on March 25, 2009

I recently experienced an exorbitant water bill. It turned out that there was a leak in the line between the meter and our house. You might want to have this checked.

Alternately, perhaps there was something that occurred in your neighborhood lately that could explain it. Did you or your neighbors have some power washing done, or perhaps filled a swimming pool? Maybe someone tapped into your line for a job involving a lot of water by mistake?
posted by cleverevans at 5:26 PM on March 25, 2009

have you kept any of your previous bills? there should be a number on there for what the meter is reading, or beginning & ending reading or something like that. should be pretty easy to double-check the numbers, as long as you know where your meter is (and have access).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:50 PM on March 25, 2009

sounds like a neighbor filled a pool......with your water. Had you been away for a few days during that time in question? Is this a possibility?
posted by Taurid at 8:21 PM on March 25, 2009

I don't think it's a pool, my pool is bigger than average for residential pools and it's 15,000 gallons. 60,000 gallons would be HUGE.
posted by TungstenChef at 9:12 PM on March 25, 2009

There is nothing man made that is infallible. If your reading prior to this incident was consistent, and now after the exorbitant reading is again what it was previously, I believe you have a good case. You need to be assertive when dealing with government lackeys. Find out who the head of the water department is and deal directly with them (preferably by letter, and copy the state utility commission); don't waste your time with peons. Demand that your meter be read again, and don't take no for answer. Use the public utility commissions in your state further if necessary. Include in your letter your history of usage facts and state them in a way that makes more of an impact. If you can read your meter yourself, you can tell them what the current reading is-- it should not even be close to the incorrect reading on your bill.

Average your use since you moved into your home. An impressive gotcha is this: If the average reading for the months since you have been there is 5 and your bill is for 81, tell them that this reading for this one month (in the middle of winter, no less) is 1,620% of your normal bill. Ask them if they would demand another reading if they had that percentage increase in their own bill... it's absolutely absurd that they are trying to blow you off!

Don't give up, demand another reading!
posted by konig at 10:43 PM on March 25, 2009

This happened to me, fortunately the person at the water authority laughed and said "that was more water than a restaurant uses in a month" and changed it to my monthly average. As mentioned upstream, point how how absurd the amount of water being billed is. You should be able to call and ask them to come check the meter free of charge, at least in my city it was. At the very least, you should be able to turn off all the water in the house and see if the meter is still registering usage.
posted by maxwelton at 2:25 AM on March 26, 2009

You may have a leak in the main, running from the meter to the house. And it might still be there. I have heard of cases where the leaking water caused enough local erosion to have mud pack into and seal the leak - temporarily.

Have noticed any erosion or changes in your lawn? Have you checked your meter? Have you been driving a car (or truck) on your lawn, over the area where the water main runs?

Most utility services are required to have some office that helps people do a use (or energy) audit for free. Request / demand help from the company to figure out and why you used that much water.

Did you pay the bill already? If you already paid, their incentive to help you is much less.
posted by Flood at 4:56 AM on March 26, 2009

The average Minneapolis house size is apparently 1,350 square feet. 81 units of water is enough to fill an entire house that size with six feet of water. If you were actually using that much water, you'd notice before you got the bill.
posted by oaf at 11:12 AM on March 26, 2009

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