When Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says smart water meters will yield “more accurate” bills for customers long frustrated by water billing errors, what’s left unsaid is that the new meters will also increase residential water bills.
The new meters will employ technology that better records low-flow water usage by households, a key to charging more per customer. “By measuring every single drip every time” with smart meters, one manufacturer brags, a water utility can increase its revenues even when rates remain the same.
According to Dynis LLC – the front runner of the yet-unannounced meter award despite a bid $100 million more than its competitor – its Sensus iPERL meters are calibrated to measure as little as 1/32 gallon per minute of flow, a rate eight times lower that the typical mechanical water meter.
Dynis says this attribute will allow measurement of low-flow usage to increase “by 10 percent, at a minimum,” adding $22.98 a year to an average user’s bill at the current water rate. Given the sharp water rate increases enacted by the Board of Estimates, the typical city customer will pay closer to $40 a year when the meters go into full operation in 2018.
Another factor likely to cause “sticker shock” to homeowners is that when old meters malfunction, they tend to “slow down” – or under record the true flow of water. Very rarely do meters speed up. In cities where smart meters have been installed, consumers often find immediate spikes in their bills.
On the other hand, whether the new technology will produce bills that are less prone to error is open to question.
Currently, meter readers (the city employs 39 of them) go house by house, open the meter lid and read the dial. The readings are then recorded on a hand-held device. When asked about inaccurate water bills, Mayor Rawlings-Blake laid blame on the reading of the old meters.
“Once the meter read gets to the billing department, the process is smooth, so now it is making sure that the meter reading is accurate. That’s why we’re focused on and moving forward with trying to get more accurate meters across the city . . . [because] so many of these meters are so old,” the mayor said at a press availability last Wednesday.