Meter mayhem: Petworth residents get hosed with high water charges, DC Water says bills are accurate

New meters have some Petworth residents feeling the pinch.  (image: Petworth News)

by Yuliya Panfil

DC Water is replacing some 85,000 water meters around the city this year, in an effort to increase the accuracy of water readings. But the effort seems to have backfired for some Petworth residents, who have recently been hit with monthly water bills four times higher than what they usually pay.

Jonathan Nobil, who has been living in Petworth for two years and whose monthly water bill usually hovers between $60 and $80, says he was shocked to receive a bill last week for $449.84.

“It says we used 29,000 gallons of water,” says Nobil, who lives with one other person in a Petworth rowhome. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Obviously 29,000 gallons is absurd.”

Nobil is not alone. Joshua Fleitman, spokesman for Councilmember Brandon Todd, said Ward 4 residents have been complaining about the high water bills for a few months now. Over the last month, the Petworth Community Listserv has received several emails about surging water bills.

“I just received my water bill for the period 5/12-6/12/17, [and] the bill is triple the highest bill I've ever received in the 10 years I've been in this house,” complained one resident. “Moreover, I was overseas 17 of the 30 days of this time frame, so NO water was used.”

“It's not only that there's this random surge in water use, but that it also corresponds to the month that the meters were switched,” wrote another resident. “Our bill in the month of the switch was 300% larger than the same month a year earlier, and by far the costliest month I've had in my 16 years of living in Petworth. Something happened when those meters were switched, and the affected residents are owed a valid explanation and likely owed refunds.” 

Nobil's bill shows 29,920 gallons used with an increase of $340 dollars from the prior month.

Indeed, Nobil said he began noticing a change in water bills after his own meter was switched out in June. His June bill jumped to $250, causing him to complain to DC Water. He says the utility promised to do an audit, but never followed up. Nobil’s next bill went down to $100 before skyrocketing back up to $450 this month.

But DC Water says the new bills are accurate. DC Water spokesman Vincent Morris says it’s likely that customers were previously being undercharged, and that higher charges are actually a reflection of more accurate usage readings from the newly installed meters.

“Before the new meters were installed at their properties, some customers were sent bills with estimated usage,” Morris said. “Because of that, some of those customers were being undercharged for the amount of water they actually consumed.”

Morris says he has not heard of any instances of the new meters giving faulty readings. He said that if charges seem high, it is likely because customers have a leak that wasn’t picked up by the old meters.

That’s a painful pill to swallow for some residents who are suddenly seeing a several hundred dollar increase in their bills. And for some, the explanation just doesn’t hold water.

“There’s no way that there’s a leak,” Nobil says of his bill. “And for me to have to pay for a plumber to come out and look at it, when this whole thing coincides very nicely with the replacement of the meters...”

This is not the first time DC residents have complained about seemingly excessive water bills. Last month, Popville published a letter from a Shaw area reader describing an even more absurd scenario: a $15,611.19 water bill earlier this year, claiming usage of more than one million gallons of water.

“This is not humanly or scientifically possible,” concluded the distraught resident, adding that repeated requests to contact DC Water were met with silence and stonewalling. Instead, after a few months passed, DC Water slapped the resident with a $5,000 late charge.

Screen grab from the DC Water website.

Nobil says his experience has left him feeling frustrated and helpless, due to DC Water’s natural monopoly in the city.

“Even if it were Pepco and you really had a beef with them, you could replace them with solar panels,” Nobil says. “There are other electricity options. But there are no other water options. It’s a monopoly. It’s just extremely frustrating.”

How to avoid a costly surprise: the HUNA program
So how do you avoid this costly predicament? Morris offered a practical precautionary solution: DC Water’s High Usage Notification Alert (HUNA) program, which sends customers a text message alert as soon as it detects a sharp rise in water usage. The online program has been around for almost a decade, and can save hundreds of dollars by promptly notifying customers as soon as water usage spikes, likely indicating a leak.

If you see a higher-than-expected water bill
Morris and Fleitman both said that if customers receive a strange looking bill, their first step should be to contact DC Water customer service. Morris said DC Water is now able to remotely check water usage from its offices, so customers should be able to receive a quick answer about the cause of the increase.

Fleitman also offered that if customers are having trouble getting a response, Councilmember Todd’s office can step in.

“If people are really having no luck [connecting with DC Water], they can definitely contact Councilmember Todd’s office, and we can connect them to DC Water,” Fleitman said. “That’s a power we have.”

Others have recommended taking to Twitter: 

“D.C. Water and DDOT have been pretty helpful when I tweeted at them,” wrote one commentator on the Popville water post. “It also helped that I didn't say mean things.”

DC Water is on Twitter as @dcwater.