As anger and frustration over mysteriously huge spikes in water bills continue to grow in Ahwatukee, local consumers are not alone.
For more than five years, dozens of large and small communities across the country have been plagued by similar waves of unusually high readings after wireless, or “smart,” water meters were installed at homes and businesses.
No one has tied the problem in Ahwatukee to the wireless meters – and the city Water Services Department continues to insist there is no problem at all on its end.
Nevertheless, the complaints registered in recent weeks by city Water Services customers in Ahwatukee with the AFN and across social media echo the same problems reported from coast to coast – and abroad – since at least 2009.
In some cases, the problems became so bad that public officials resigned or companies were forced to replace the meters.
Two years ago, a Chicago Tribune investigation that uncovered hundreds of cases of overbilling tied to wireless meters ultimately prompted the public works director of Tinley Park, Illinois, to resign amid questions over his handling of the issue.
Since 2011, hundreds of complaints erupted in Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution reported that while that city had the longest history of complaints about meter readings “similar complaints about huge water bill spikes have popped up in Cleveland, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tampa, Florida; and Brockton, Massachusetts.”
So many municipalities in California have been dealing for more than five years with a deluge of complaints about meter reading spikes that an organization called Stop Smart Meters sprung up. In the last five years, it has spawned affiliates in virtually every state in the union.
“We are constantly inundated with calls about smart meters,” said the organization’s founder and director, Joshua Hart, adding that he has received “countless cases of overcharging.”
Stop Smart Meters also opposes all wireless utility-reading meters on other grounds.
Hart asserts they pose a substantial health risk, citing a $22-million study on their harmful effects; that they have been linked to starting fires in homes; and that they threaten privacy because of their potential as surveillance devices.
When Phoenix began replacing its 425,000 analog water meters with its Automatic Meter Reading system eight years ago – a project it just completed in July – officials noted that a Water Services employee read about 400 meters a day in person and that meant “mistakes can happen. “
“The accuracy gained by using an AMR system can greatly reduce errors, and consequently, reduce the need to re-read meters,” they said in an advisory to customers, noting:
“In order to meet the current and future demands of our customer’s needs, it was important that AMR be brought in so the quality of customer service can be enhanced.”
Such words ring hollow for residents like Dawn Lynch, whose July water bill of more than $1,200 was three times greater than normal. The total gallons reported by her meter: a whopping 204,952.
She said she called Water Services but “they refused to send someone out.”
“(They) asked if we checked for leaks, I said the only thing we found was a small watering emitter which did not account for this much water,” she said.
Other customers complained about broken meters – and largely unresponsive city workers who took their complaints.
Stephanie Brill has found meter parts twice this summer on the “city side” of pipes leading toward the meter and her home.
“When the pieces get stuck, they keep the valve open and our planters flood,” she said. “Luckily, I am home so we caught it before too much water was wasted.”
Water Services spokesman Stephanie Bracken said the parts Brill found likely came from an irrigation system and said the city's water meters "do not include" the kind she found.
When she called Water Services, she said, “The person at the city had no idea what we were talking about. Kept telling us that a leak on our side was our responsibility. However, when it is pieces of a meter, it is their issue.
“We kept asking to speak to someone that had knowledge of water meters. After an hour of holding we hung up. We were leaving on vacation. We had our son check on the sprinkler system each day we were gone, we were concerned we would come home to the water running constantly. When we came home we had a flyer that said the city checked and the meter was fine. They did not bother to explain the pieces we have collected.”
Brill added: “We believe when they replaced the meters in the area, they were sloppy (and) parts got into the supply line and had to work their way through the system. This year we downsized, so watering much less and our children have moved out, so there’s just the two of us.
“Our bills are higher than they have ever been,” she said. “I am not sure what is going on, but things do not add up.”
City Councilman Sal DiCiccio last week intensified his effort to see why things aren’t adding up.
He has asked people 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.
DiCiccio told AFN he still intends to hold a town meeting in Ahwatukee with Water Services officials, but wants more data first – not just from customers but the Water Services Department as well.
“I want to break down the area by ZIP code areas,” he said. “Then I want to look at the difference between commercial use, golf courses and homeowner associations and compare that against homeowner use.”
Hart said that customers can contact his organization’s hotline, 888-965-6435, and also encouraged them to check out stopsmartmeters.org for information.
No one knows if faulty meters are to blame for the high readings in Ahwatukee.
For example, DiCiccio said his City Council colleagues’ offices have heard of no such problem occurring in other city neighborhoods.
While Stop Smart Meters’ website has extensive reporting on the vulnerability of wireless meters to hacks, DiCiccio said the random nature of the complaints in Ahwatukee seems to argue against that theory since there seems to be no rhyme or reason for deliberate tampering.
At the same time, however, some residents wonder if interference caused by other digital devices might be affecting the readings.
Meanwhile, Foothills Gateway HOA representatives – whose bill for 1 million gallons of water in July triggered the wave of reports of high readings – met last week with Water Services.
But Susan Manolis, whose husband Steve is vice president of that HOA board, reported that the meeting ended inconclusively, noting that department plans to meet with the association’s landscapers.
“They still can’t explain where one million gallons has gone, but they seemed receptive to helping,” she said of the Water Services officials. “So, I guess we wait till they come out and see what they find.”