The Phoenix Water Services Department and city Councilman Sal DiCiccio have set a town hall meeting on Ahwatukee customers’ complaints about bills showing unusual spikes in consumption.The meeting is at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at Pecos Communty Center.
Little hope so far as emerged for an explanation of the spikes, as evidenced last week when a top Water Services official visited with the homeowners association that triggered a flood of complaints about mysterious one-month increases.
“I don’t think we have an explanation,” Jim Swanson, deputy Water Services director, last week told Foothills Gateway HOA board members after he and a team of workers examined the meter that showed a July consumption of 1 million gallons – 20,000 times the normal monthly reading.
A technician tested the meter and found it accurate, but Swanson had it replaced on the spot after HOA board members conceded they might as well have a new one.
He had more unsettling news for irate consumers.
He said the department also has looked at a three-year history of water consumption in Ahwatukee in an effort to find any surges in water use and has found nothing unusual.
“When we plot the last three years of data, all the consumption month after month is very, very consistent.” Swanson said. “Across Ahwatukee, there is no spike in July. Preliminarily, there is no spike we can see in the community. Month over month, year over year, the consumption is the same.”
Dozens of homeowners in recent weeks have reported huge spikes in water consumption for one month, most typically July. They also insist they checked for leaks and found none.
While Councilman Sal DiCiccio is setting up a town hall meeting with Water Services for possibly later this month, department spokeswoman Stephanie Bracken announced it is “pulling a random sample of customers in Ahwatukee.”
“We will check their consumption for any unusual variances that might indicate a leak or other type of problem. We will also then go out and do a field check to make sure that the manual meter read matches the electronic read. Last, we will double-check the amount billed against the meter reads for this random sample,” she said, adding:
“Using this technique, we should be able to spot any meter or billing-related problems if they exist. This process will not involve or inconvenience any customers. We will share the results at the community meeting.”
The furor began after Susan Manolis, wife of Foothills Gateway board vice president Steve Manolis, reported the HOA’s meter problem.
Soon complaints poured into Ahwatukee social media sites and AFN about similarly high readings for one month.
Swanson had agreed to meet with several HOA board members and their landscaper at the meter location after they complained of the shabby treatment they received when they first went to City Hall to talk with someone in the department’s billing division.
Swanson explained how the city’s 430,000 so-called “smart” meters work and how there are “really only two parts” that would be subject to breaking down.
The city just this summer completed an eight-year project to replace all its analog meters with an Automated Meter Reading System at a cost of $28.8 million.
The project aimed to improve meter reading accuracy and reduce payroll.
“In 2004, the city employed approximately 65 full-time Meter Operations employees,” Bracken explained. “Today, after the conversion to Automated Meter Reading (AMR) the city employs nine, which represents a significant increase in efficiency. In addition, AMR readings ensure Water Services accomplishes a 99.9 percent meter-read accuracy, compared to a 97 percent average read accuracy when the city used manual reads.”
Bracken also said the meters have only a .03 percent failure rate.
Swanson took the occasion of his meeting in Foothills Gateway to explain how the Badger meters record the volume of water used and how the Itron Encoder Receiver Transmitter relays that data to a Water Services employee who drives by the meter location once a month.
“There are really only two parts that can break from a metering perspective,” Swanson said, pointing to the register that records the volume and a cup with a magnet on top that turns as water flows through the meter. As the magnet turns, it moves the dial on the register.
“Meters don’t suddenly speed up,” he said. “Our meters can’t do that. When they fail, they usually fail in the customer’s favor.”
He also focused heavily on how a break in an irrigation line or some other malfunction in the system can trigger a high bill.
“When irrigation systems fail, a ton of water can be used,” he said. “In the home ,there are not many things that use a lot of water.” He added, however, that an open toilet flapper can trigger a high volume of water use without a homeowner not necessarily noticing it for a while.
But Swanson conceded such breaks don’t explain a one-month spike in consumption.
The only explanation he could offer: a particle of sand could get stuck in the valve through which water flows into the meter and eventually get dislodged, explaining why water consumption would soar and then fall back to normal.
Both DiCiccio and Swanson are asking consumers with problems to contact the,.
DiCiccio is asking consumers who have received a mysteriously high bill to go to payonline.phoenix.gov and download their last 24 months of usage and billing information and email it to his office at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has posted instructions on retrieving this information, but advised people to call his office at 602-262-7491 if they need help.
Swanson said it does little good for consumers with a problem to just air their grievances on social media.
“What we’re trying to tell people is that when they’re on social media, we can’t do much. If you have an issue, you need to call us,” he said.
Customers can contact the department at email@example.com or 602-262-6251.
Steve Manolis was satisified that Swanson tried to find the problem.
“Everything you’ve said is logical,” he told Swanson. “It’s logical to the point where what happened doesn’t make sense.”