A faulty meter or a leaky toilet... which is the culprit for high water bills?

How fresh is DC Water's meter refresh? Some residents think there's a problem.

How fresh is DC Water's meter refresh? Some residents think there's a problem.

A leaky toilet, a potentially dysfunctional meter and an angry DC Water makes it a challenge for Petworth residents to find good answers.

Last week Petworth News published an article about Petworth residents who discovered inordinately high water bills after DC Water replaced their water meters. One resident, Jonathan Nobil, had a water bill showing more than 29,000 gallons being used last month -- water he contends his household didn't use. 

“It just doesn’t make any sense. Obviously 29,000 gallons is absurd,” says Nobil. After working with DC Water and discovering that he did in fact have two minor leaks, Mr. Nobil was ready to just pay the bill and move on... until a DC Water technician told him his meter was faulty on Thursday.

Later on Thursday afternoon DC Water followed up with an email to Mr. Nobil with a veiled accusation and threat, and separately to Petworth News with an angry email suggesting we not publish a follow-up. 

A faulty meter?
On Thursday morning a DC Water technician showed up unannounced at the house. Mr. Nobil found the technician on his front yard replacing the water meter.

"I asked him if there's something wrong with the meter, and he said 'Yeah, I’m getting an error message on this one. Your meter’s messed up. Did you get a bad bill?'”

DC Water technician testing and then replacing the water meter at Mr. Nobil's home.

The technician showed Mr. Nobil the laptop he had with him that showed the meter was faulty. "I've seen this before," the technician said. The technician told Mr. Nobil that in his experience, he guessed the property had a high water bill. 

DC Water then sent another technician in the afternoon on Thursday to do an "underground audit" and left without informing Mr. Nobil if they completed the audit, or any potential results. In fact, according to Mr. Nobil, DC Water has been onsite and opened the meter at least three times, including today.

DC Water spokesman Vincent Morris previously said that it’s likely that customers were being undercharged by DC Water for their usage in the past, and that any higher charges seen now are a reflection of more accurate readings from the newly installed meters. Morris also said he had not heard of any instances of the new meters giving faulty readings, and that higher charges that seem high might indicate a leak not picked up by the old meters. 

After the Petworth News article was published, DC Water visited Mr. Nobil's home with a plumbing inspector to look for leaks. And lo and behold, they did find two leaking toilets.

One was a "moderate” leak, silent and slow in an upstairs toilet that they didn't know about, and the other was a basement toilet that was classified as "severe." According to Mr. Nobil, they knew about the basement toilet leak, and that it was caused by the o-ring being displaced when flushed. 

"We’ve known about this one for a while and were diligent about making sure it didn’t run," Mr. Nobil said. "The technician acknowledged that it wasn’t actively running when he began his audit. Once he flushed it and the o-ring was displaced then yes, it began to run/leak."

"In my view, it still doesn’t add up," he said. "And even if those leaks were the cause, would they really add $350 per month to a water bill? If so, I think everyone should be aware."

But in looking at his history, the usage numbers don't make sense to him. 

Mr. Nobil's water usage from the DC Water website that shows an extremely high usage rate, then a sudden unexplained drop-off well before DC Water visited his home.

"After signing up for the new DC Water portal, I looked at our daily usage," Mr. Nobil wrote on a recent listserv email. "Interestingly, daily usage registered as extremely high (~300+ CuFt per day) each day from August 1 to 17, and then dropped back down to consistently normal levels between august 18-29 (call it ~20 CuFt per day)."

So does one leaky toilet and one that wasn't being used amount to 29,000 gallons of usage all of a sudden, and then an odd reduction in usage mid-month?

"If it were indeed our leaks that were causing the high water bill, which is DC Water’s position as of their audit last Friday, I’d expect that the high usage would be consistently reflected in our daily readings through the end of August," he writes. "If we have leaks, why do we suddenly have normal water usage starting August 18th?"

Even so, Mr. Nobil was ready to let it go. "I thought this was over, was going to pay the bill and move on," he said.

Then the technician showed up on Thursday morning to say the meter was faulty. Now Mr. Nobil doesn't know for sure the cause of the increased prices, is it a leaky toilet or a faulty meter?

"If we accept DC Water's explanation that the meters are more accurate, then fine," Mr. Nobil said. "People need to pay attention and fix any leaks. But I think there's something going on. From the emails on the area listservs, this is affecting a lot of people across the city. What about folks who can't afford to just pay the bill? There aren’t any alternative water providers. This is an issue that’s affecting many citizens in our neighborhood and around the District, for whom it likely creates a real financial burden."

We reached out to DC Water for comment on the replacement of Mr. Nobil's meter, and Mr. Morris from DC Water responded with an angry email suggesting we not publish a follow up. "That is 100 percent incorrect. His meter was checked and it works perfectly. Just some unsolicited advice here: Trying to double down on this story is not a good idea."

Mr. Morris then replied directly to Mr. Nobil via email, ccing Petworth News, the Petworth listserv, two DC Councilmembers, a TV reporter, a WAMU reporter and an ANC 4D commissioner, making a veiled accusation and threat that Mr. Nobil may have disconnected his water meter and could face legal action (emphasis added by Petworth News in the email below):

"Normally out of courtesy to our customers we don’t discuss account details on list servs and to reporters.

But since you have invited TV cameras into your home to document this and cc’d multiple people I am happy to respond and set the record straight.

First: You are incorrect. Your meter works perfect. We checked it multiple times and it is accurately recording your water consumption and has for the years you have lived in that house. Yes a DC Water technician was at your house this morning to examine the meter pit. Why? Because somehow the transmitting unit that sends us a record of your meter’s usage was disconnected. That is highly unusual – do you know anything about how your water meter may have been disconnected from your transmitter?  We have heard of customers doing that intentionally in order to avoid paying for their water but it is extremely rare – and obviously illegal and unethical.

Thankfully, the meter continues to accurately record usage so we have an accurate snapshot of all the water consumed at your property.

Second: On Sept. 8, DC Water sent a technician to your house to provide you with a free audit of your water usage. I was there. As you saw firsthand, you have not 1  but 2 separate toilet leaks in your house (in your basement and on your second floor). One of the leaks is graded as “severe.” My suggestion to you that day was that you repair both of your leaking toilets as quickly as possible.

Third: What kind of “good answer” were you looking for on Tuesday when you reached out to us?

Fourth: Water usage varies by customer, by day of the week and by many other factors. Certainly if you flush your toilets and then manually lift the tank of the rear to jiggle the stopper you can sometimes prevent a steady leak. Is it possible you did that on certain days but you or your guests failed to on other days? I’m guessing that the variance in your usage is related to both the times when you or your guests flush your leaking toilets or more likely can be attributed to the mysterious disconnection of your transmitting unit, which might lead to a variance in usage when you review your account online. As you were told last week, a toilet like yours with a severe leak left running is the equivalent of flushing your toilet all day long every 5 minutes. That’s is clearly the reason your bills have spiked.

As everyone at DC Water has told you and all DC residents with questions about their bills – if you have questions about your bill or service feel free to call our customer service department.

I hope this is helpful and I hope it clarifies things for others as well.

Vince

If nothing else, DC Water should see this issue as an opportunity to communicate better with residents, both in general and with the possibility of more accurate meters costing DC residents higher bills. Angry emails don't communicate effectively and make DC Water look unfriendly and uncooperative.

Note: Jonathan Nobil will speak about this topic at the ANC 4D meeting on Tuesday, September 19th.

How to avoid a costly surprise: DC Water's HUNA program
DC Water’s High Usage Notification Alert (HUNA) program 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.


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Drew Schneider

Local DC blogger in Petworth, Washington DC.



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