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Drowning in Bills

You are a 22-unit co-op on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and your average water bill is about $7,000 a year. Suddenly, in 2007, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the city’s water monitoring agency, bills you $93,484.90. For one year.

You are a 60-unit co-op in Rego Park, Queens. In 2004, you get a credit. Then the next year, you do not receive a water bill at all from the DEP. The following year, you get a bill for $46,000 – about double what you had received two years earlier.

Whoa! Are those mistakes? Or have you been using a heckuva lot more water than you did same time last year?

“We see this happening all over the city,” observes Hershel Weiss, project engineer at Ashokan, a water-waste consulting firm. “A building gets a low water bill, and they figure, as far as water use goes, they’re the best building in New York City – and then all of a sudden, the city says, ‘You’re a water hog,’ and hits them with a $90,000 water bill.”

“The causes?” says Alan Rothschild, president of the Vantage Group, a meter-reading company. “Erroneous draining, multiplier errors, and, in many cases, it’s a consumption issue that the building’s not aware of. And, unfortunately, the bill is accurate and there was a substantial consumption uptrend that the building did not detect, and it costs them a lot of money.” (In the first case cited above, the cause was human error; the second case is still under review.)

If this happens to you, what steps can you take to be sure that the billing is accurate – and to be certain that receiving an enormous bill doesn’t happen again?

First, determine if you are on “frontage” or metered rates. Although meters are required in most buildings, the city has allowed a grace period under which frontage – or estimated rates – still apply. Under this system, the billing rate is based on the number of water fixtures in your property (i.e., toilets, showers, baths), the size of the front width of your building, and its number of stories. If you are on frontage and your charge seems too high, check these items against the ones on your bill.

Metered properties are a different breed. More accurate than the frontage technique, meters are generally read once every three months, and a bill is usually issued four to eight days later. They can be read by using one of four methods: by a passing vehicle; by radio frequency, using collection dishes on roofs; by on-site personnel who place a reading gun up against a remote scan pad placed on the outside of every building; and by telephone modem.

If you are suspicious of your water bill, you should read the meter yourself and keep a log. “Read the water meters on a weekly basis,” says Weiss. “Before paying any bills, check if the bill information matches the actual read.”

“Folks have to be aware of the amount of water they’re using,” agrees Warren Liebold, director of technical services and conservation at the DEP’s Bureau of Customer Services, “which means reading their meters themselves once a month. Right now, we read and bill quarterly, and that means if you’ve got a leak or some other sort of condition, if you’re not reading the meter yourself more often, you don’t find out about it for three months.”

Many water consultants offer a water and sewer bill review. They will check prior bills for past errors and overcharges. “If we detect significant prior overcharges, or methods of retroactive or prospective cost reduction, we will represent the client at the relevant utility or entity in order to procure the maximum possible refund, credit, or adjustment,” says Rothschild. “There is no additional charge for this follow-up, except if we are successful. Then, the client agrees to pay a contingency fee for any money refunded, credited, or adjusted.”

Keep a log of all repairs to the meters, says Weiss. Determine the cause of any estimated read. Is it because the meter is broken? If not, why is the city using an estimate? “Frequently, a meter becomes defective or the outside touch pad becomes defective,” observes Rothschild, “and they can’t read the meter, so they start estimating bills.” (Con Ed currently performs the readings for the city.) Liebold, however, asserts that meters are “almost never” defective, and that those who say that they are “don’t know what they’re talking about. ”

According to the DEP’s website, if your bill says “estimated,” check the date of the estimated read and the number listed as the “reading index.” Then compare that figure to the one on the top of the register head of the meter. The bill will not show zeroes or blanks on the left of the reading index, but the meter may have them. If the index number on the bill is very similar to the number on the meter, then the bill is considered valid and should be paid. “Estimated bills turn out to be a major cause of billing errors,” Weiss notes.

“If you have an estimated bill,” says Liebold, “and the next one is an actual bill, and the estimated one was low, then you end up with a catch-up bill, which people interpret as higher consumption but really just means the initial estimate was low.”

If the bill is accurate, your next step is to look for water waste or high usage. You should definitely repair leaky faucets and tell owners to turn taps off tightly. A slow drip wastes 15 to 20 gallons each day. “Check for leaks or anything to do with excessive use of water, like the boiler, laundry room, anything that can be obvious,” says Irwin Cohen, principal in A. Michael Tyler Realty, a management firm.

You can take advantage of services available from the city. The DEP offers free leak surveys for the city’s residential water and sewer customers. Under the DEP’s program, run by Honeywell, water-saving showerheads, water-savers for toilets, and faucet aerators may be installed in qualifying properties. Also, a written report of the survey’s findings is provided to the owner. (To request a Residential Water Survey, go to: www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/dep/home.html)

There is also the Multi-Family Conservation Program. The DEP is offering to help buildings that are showing high consumption of water based on their meter billings. If your “per apartment per year rate” is over $518, then you can make yourself eligible by adhering to the requirements set for this program. This is a means to help owners put a cap on high water consumption by tenants, as well as comply with the DEP’s conservation goal. The requirements include installing low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads and using low-flow washing machines.

You may also want to turn to consultants. The 60-unit co-op in Queens that received a $46,000 bill hired Water Waste Prevention. “Through their study of past usage, they figured we had been overbilled by $26,000,” says Clement Titcomb, the board president. The matter is still under review by the DEP.

“I can provide a service wherein we would come in once a month or every other month or every three months, depending upon how much service you want, and we could read those meters and prepare reports indicating the meter readings, the consumption, and the cost,” says Barry Cooper, president of Water Waste.

“If they [the clients] want to do it on their own, they can go through the DEP and ask for a Honeywell inspection,” observes Debbie Ginsberg, president of Remote Meter Technology of New York. “The difference between doing things through the DEP and doing things through us is that we get things done much faster. We also follow up on it. We tell you exactly which fixtures are leaking and what’s the consumption of each. The problem may not be so much a leak as much as you’re using a fixture that’s not a low-flow. These are all things that the DEP is not going to tell you but we will, and that makes a big difference in terms of repairing them or putting in conservation-type fixtures. It’s a very detailed report. The purpose is to tell you if there are leaks or not. If there are no leaks and yet you’re using higher consumption – let’s say your toilets are high – they’re not going to start going through all the details. They’ll just tell you that the report said there were no leaks.”

But remember, the best protection is prevention: using the latest technology to monitor your water use so that minor leaks don’t become major budget-busting floods. You can do this with automatic meter reading technology.

“We attach a device that’s like a computer called a probe,” explains Rothschild. “It has memory in it, reads the meter every hour, stores the readings, and once a week it makes a phone call and dumps the readings into a central database, from which we can access them to monitor use and foresee or detect problems. And DEP also uses the same database to generate their bills. As a result, the DEP bills are less likely to be inaccurate.”

The typical building, with 50 to 200 units and one meter, can receive basic monitoring services for a cost of only $50 to $60 per month. All you need is a standard telephone line located somewhere near the meter. Rothschild says that it will pay for itself quickly: one moderately leaking toilet can cost more than $150 a month under today’s high water/sewer rates. He points to a 55- unit building at which water costs recently doubled over the course of one month. “Because of our equipment, we detected it rapidly, and after repeated phone calls to the owner and the super, they finally traced it to two running toilets.” Such surges in consumption can easily increase costs by 10 to 20 percent or more amounting to $1,500 to $3,000 per year in the typical 50- to 100-unit building. “The device that we use costs $850 to install, and the city gives you back $500 as a bill credit. So your net cost is $350,” notes Rothschild.

“The city is going to be moving to city-wide automatic meter reading over the next three years,” Liebold says. “As that happens, all meters will be equipped with radio transmitters. Meters will be read at least once a day by the system. People will have access to those reads, eventually, through the web. And we will eventually move to monthly billing.

“That’s a good idea,” continues Liebold about installing an AMR system. “You don’t have to pay any consultant fees to get automatic bills through telephone-based automatic meter reading. You can hire the AMR company to install a panel and get reimbursed for a part of it under the city’s Reimbursable Metering Program. And once you do that, the meter will be read and billed through the AMR [as read by the DEP]. What the consultants will do is give you additional services. They’ll give you a report of many readings to give you an indication of whether you have leak problems. They’re monitoring the readings for you.”

“With us monitoring, any problem is detected rapidly,” Rothschild notes. “We provide a report every month that tells you what’s going on. We even tell you ahead of time what your next bill is going to be, before you get it. And if there’s a problem with the meter becoming defective or with DEP making billing errors, we catch it right away. It doesn’t turn into huge problems.”

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