One solution to high water bills

More than 10,000 Austin Water customers complained of unexpected bill spikes over the summer. The utility is now finally taking action. Austin Water hopes technology can be the solution to future water issues.

The utility is testing out smart meter technology in one Northwest Austin community. If it works, it could be expanded to all customers.

The result: greater accuracy, reliability and hopefully fewer complaints. This has become the routine for Austin Water customers like Scott Crosby.

"I write it down and calculate what my water usage is for the month," says Scott Crosby, River Place, HOA president.

It's been a frustrating past several months. Crosby is the HOA president for the River Place community, an area where dozens of residents have complained of their bills suddenly skyrocketing.

"It really comes down to a 'he said, she said' type of situation. The individuals are saying, 'my sprinkler system was not on or it was only on this amount of time. There's no way I could have possibly used that much water,'" says Crosby.

So how do we solve that? Austin Water just announced they will be evaluating cellular-based smart water meters.

The process will take place in multiple phases within the River Place community. 150 addresses will be randomly selected and the mechanical register on top of a meter would be replaced with a digital one.

"Information can be accessed through an online source, that way we can get a more real-time read on water usage of our customers in this particular test group. So it is not a full out smart meter all the way from A-to-Z but it's a way to integrate new technology into our infrastructure and see how it works," says Jason Hill, Austin Water.

  • Phase 1 - installing the register and testing out how it reads.
  • Phase 2 - giving customers access through the online portal.
  • Phase 3 - integrating the data into the current billing system, which could help customers if they find an error.

"At the end of the day, it will be very beneficial not only to us in regards to billing or accuracy but to the customers as well. To be able to, at the end of the day, have some real-time knowledge and access to their water usage," says Hill.

Council Member Don Zimmerman has been involved with water bill disputes since this summer.
He already has some doubts about this option.

"There's kind of a chain-of-custody of the information and it's still possible for measurements to get screwed up. From the time it gets transmitted from your meter, to the time it appears on your bill, if you have bad management that can still get screwed up and we can still end up with disputes and errors," says Councilman Don Zimmerman, District 6, City of Austin.

Austin Water says this is only one of many smart meter options they're looking at. In the long term, this could mean relying on technology versus people.

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