What’s going on with Newton’s water meters?

Some Newton residents have been getting outrageous water bills that don’t match with their water usage. The key to that mystery can be found in the transponders.

Water meters measure how many cubic feet of water a home uses in a given period of time. A transponder on the meter sends the data from that meter to a database that is used to create a bill.

Lately, the meter and transponders on many homes have been in disagreement, with transponders telling the database a customer used a lot more water than they used and resulting in massive water bills.

What happened?

A few years ago, transponders started malfunctioning all over the city, according to City Councilor Susan Albright, who chairs the Public Facilities Committee.

“The city started to replace them. Then as a number of failures exploded, they were unable to get more transponders from the company that sold them to us and the company finally went bankrupt,” Albright said. “The DPW realized they would have to replace the whole system.”

“I believe that about 14,000 homes are getting estimated bills and many have been getting this estimated bills for years – since their transponder failed,” Albright said. “What we hear about in the Council are the folks who are receiving bills in the $8,000 to $12,000 range. People are shocked by this. They are given one year to pay the back water bill.  I don’t know why the estimates have been so off.”

It may have something to do with the water system’s tiers. Higher usage gets charged at a higher rate than lower usage. A transponder reporting high water use may knock a home into a high-use tier, making the bill even more expensive.

In a nutshell: The meters are working, but the transponders that transmit usage data from the meter are failing, so residents have been getting weird water bills. Some bills are ridiculously higher than the customer’s usage, and others are actually reporting lower than actual usage.

One man named Mark Heimlich even has a change.org petition to have the city issue him a forbearance after he received a water bill of $15,000 in December.

“The City should not penalize residents for their inability to collect accurate meter reads for the past four years and residents should have more than 30 days to reconcile with the city to determine how the overage was incurred and applied and whether it is due to a leak or inaccurate reporting,” the petition reads.

What’s being done?

The Newton DPW is working on replacing the system at a pace of about 500 meters per week. There are 29,000 meters in the city. As of late January, Albright said, the DPW had replaced transponders for about 8,300 of them.

The DPW is also “smoothing” out tiers on bills—reducing the amount owed by spreading the tiers over time and thus reducing the highest tier costs—to bring bills down. Albright said she’s helped residents get this done for their bills before and having the DPW do it universally will help a lot of homeowners.

Residents are asked to take a photo of their water meter’s usage number and send it to the DPW to get an accurate bill.

“I don’t know how many people read the bill and take advantage of that,” Albright said. “I’ve done this a couple of times myself—but I certainly don’t do it every month.”