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Defenders: Bill estimating irks SAWS customer

Usage billed was three times higher

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A San Antonio Water System customer is raising questions about SAWS' billing practices after finding out the utility declared his meter ‘sick' and replaced it.

Greg Birdsall and his wife bought a water saving dishwasher last year.

"We always use the eco cycle," Birdsall said.

He has a clothes washer to match and considers himself a water waste watcher.

That is why he was shocked at a recent water bill that was four times higher than his usual bill.

His winter average water use is around 5,000 gallons or less, but he got a bill for much higher usage.

"When they say I used 15,000 gallons, there's just absolutely no way," Birdsall said.
So he began examining his historic usage.

In January of last year, for example, he used 5,237 gallons of water. In February 2013 it was 3,741 gallons.

Then he discovered that in those same months in 2014 he was charged for using more than 14,000 gallons each month.

"We're doing absolutely no outside watering and we've got high efficiency appliances," Birdsall said.

He complained and SAWS investigated the complaint.

Greg Flores, SAWS Vice President of Communications and Public Service, said the utility found Birdsall's meter was malfunctioning.

"We did discover the meter was sick," Flores said.

He explained that sick meters register less water usage, not more.

"Just like a clock may slow down over time, our water meters slow down over time," Flores said. "They don't register more, they register less."

So Birdsall wondered why his bills were higher instead of lower if the meter was reading and reporting less water usage.

He found out that because SAWS knew the meter was under-reading his usage, the utility estimated the usage based on the previous three months.

Birdsall questioned why his January and February bills were both estimated based on actual readings from October, November and December 2013.

"Why, in February, did they bill me for an amount that they knew was incorrect," Birdsall asked. "If there is a question as to the amount of water that's been used, why not just charge me my last year's winter average?"

He complained and got his bill adjusted, but he's still skeptical.

"This raises the question of trust," Birdsall said. "How many other customers are they doing that to throughout San Antonio?"

Through an Open Records Act request the KSAT 12 Defenders asked SAWS for the number of malfunctioning meters over the last four years.

There were 6,565 meters replaced in 2010, 13,440 the following year, many due to a meter replacement program.

There were 7,266 malfunctioning meters in 2012 and 8,077 in 2013 according to data provided by SAWS.

Flores said the utility is focusing on replacing old meters to make sure customers get accurate bills.

"We've replaced about 100,000 meters over the last three years that are over 15 years old," Flores said.

Customers whose meters are replaced because they are sick, however, should beware the estimated readings.

SAWS said the average of the previous three months of water usage is used when doing estimations to be more accurate.

Their theory is the readings from the previous year might not have been typical.

SAWS did not have an explanation for the giant bill that customer Charles Jackson received for March usage.

It was more than $300 for more than 40,000 gallons of water use when his average monthly usage was closer to 5,000 gallons.

SAWS investigated and found the meter was reading correctly and that there were no leaks.

"We haven't been able to determine what exactly was the cause of that spike," Flores said. "In that case, the assumption is the water was used somehow."

Jackson said he did not have a toilet, faucet or hose running during that period.

He is left with a mystery and a big bill.

SAWS urges customers with questions about their bills to call 704-SAWS (7297).