Approximately 1 1/4 years ago, the mayor of Cornelius formed a citizens task force to look into “spiked water bills.” Many others and I proudly served on this team and made recommendations.

After the first public meeting in Cornelius, many more customers read the local papers and, likewise, challenged their water bills and doubted the water consumption claims on their invoices from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. The complaints grew in number.

A logical troubleshooting action by the utility has been to record and visit each complaint address and investigate the meter and telemetry equipment, which they did to a limited degree – one time for approximately 30 minutes.

The utility’s next logical step might have been to take a sample of these customers with outlandishly high bills, where no leak was obvious, and either take daily meter readings manually itself or the customer or install some type of data logging equipment on the customer’s incoming line to measure water flow and pressure versus time. Something like a strip chart recorder, only digital. In this way, the utility and the doubting customer could see real time data on what amount of water was being used hourly or daily and when it was being used, rather than taking a reading each month as has been the utility’s practice.

Data logging equipment certainly existed 1 1/4 years ago. Yet to my knowledge, it was not employed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities or telemetry manufacturers Badger or Itron to aggressively troubleshoot and get real time data from the spiked-bill sites and get to the cause.

No daily data readings, taken manually or electronically, were ever given to the customers. Therefore, the story and the spike complaints continue.

Now the utility and local media report an upgrade to so-called “new technology” equipment is going to be pilot tested at select neighborhoods. A utility official initially said the data from these new technology meter readers is not going to be shared with the customer. More recently, utility management said, “It provides a first step towards allowing our customers to have more frequent access to their water-use data.” After all the complaints, articles and meetings, why not say: The data will be promptly shared with the clients upon request? Promptly. Hopefully by email.

This 100W Itron equipment has been available since mid-2010, as just one of the latest technology smart meters offered by the flow-measurement industry. The trial tests being set up in our area to test its reliability will likely take quite a while to bear fruit, but generally speaking, this is a good move for everyone, if the equipment functions properly during and after the trials. The ability to track hourly water use is a very useful troubleshooting feature for the utility and the customers.

In the meantime, if a customer wants to become more involved in managing their water costs, I recommend they read their own meter once a week or more often if they like. Record the reading and date in case you receive a spike bill that month. Try to make one of the readings on the same day the utility normally reads your meter. Compare your manual readings with your bill’s electronic readings with events like your irrigation use, stuck or running toilets, etc. The key is empowerment and involvement.

For years, the utility has used the original, obsolete Itron 50W transponder. A year ago, the failure rate was in the 7 or 8 percent range, as I recall. The utility also has installed many of the newer, better 60W transponders, which seal the electronics better against the moisture, dirt and rain water present in the meter box.

What have we learned? When faced with a major customer complaint, it is best for management to run quickly toward the problem or complaint with the best resources (staff, supplier experts and equipment), let the customers know you are as worried about the problem as they are, keep the customer operating, get the customer involved in the solutions, forgo threats of loss of service and collection, and give the customer additional accurate data they can believe and trust. Then financially settle with them fairly. If you don’t, the problem spreads.

While initially slow to respond, and customer service was ineffective in dealing with the growing massive number of complaints, new utility management has certainly made progress with developing a new action plan but has a ways to go before the problem dries up.

The citizens and the mayor’s task force asked for action and are now, finally, getting it. Let’s support these pilot tests and the lessons that come from it. Now that some of the existing electronics appear broken, the utility, Badger and Itron must fix it, with the goal of getting back long-term reliability, confidence and trust that existed years ago when we had the meter, without electronics, in the front yard.

– Robert Wenderlich,
Retired engineer, Ingersoll Rand Co.