PITTSBURGH,PA: Leaks in the System -Some PWSA customers say new water meters are all wet

Leaks in the System

Some PWSA customers say new water meters are all wet

Last April, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority began installing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) throughout the city. The new AMI uses wireless signals to transmit meter data to PWSA and promises to help residents better monitor their water usage.

But in the past three months, when the software component of the new AMI was implemented, some residents in Mount Washington and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods say they began experiencing problems with the water authority.

In Mount Washington, recent spikes in water usage have distressed some residents, and communication issues between residents and PWSA have caused further concern.

This year, some residents began receiving estimated water bills because the AMI system doesn’t yet work for approximately 3,500 customers whose homes have older meters that cannot be read by the new technology.

PWSA has asked for residents’ understanding while it transitions to the new system. But the authority has also claimed that the spike in water usage some customers are experiencing isn’t related to the new system.

Ridiculous PA Water Bill

  • A graph from Lucinda Wolff’s most recent water bill shows an increase in usage.

After Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith was flooded with complaints about PWSA, she hosted a meeting between the water authority and a few of the affected residents.

“The complaints were very broad. It seemed to be concentrated in the Mount Washington area, but then as we started getting additional phone calls, we realized there were issues in other areas,” says Kail-Smith. “There’s just been so many.”

Some of those complaints include: higher bills due to higher-than-usual water usage; bills not being delivered; and extended wait times when calling customer service.

“Some people are receiving shut-off notices the day after they receive the bill. Some people are receiving bills that [have increased by] 600 percent,” says Kail-Smith. “They’re having a difficult time getting in touch with customer service, even though PWSA says they have 250 people [answering phones]. Which tells me if 250 people are busy, this issue is much broader. They must be dealing with a lot of issues.”

At the meeting, on March 18, Kail-Smith asked PWSA to stop sending out shut-off notices to people who have not paid increased bills, or who have not received their bills at all, until issues are resolved.

“It’s startling when you hear these numbers,” says Kail-Smith. “When I started hearing these stories, I thought, ‘There’s definitely something wrong here.'”

According to PWSA spokesperson Melissa Rubin, the increased bills are the result of leaky pipes possibly exacerbated by cold temperatures over the winter, not faulty water meters or glitches in the new system. But she advises anyone experiencing a problem to call customer service.

“There are a variety of issues that can cause someone to have a higher-than-usual bill, and it’s not necessarily due to the conversion or the new equipment,” Rubin says. “They could have a problem inside of their home, especially in the winter.”

Problems with the new system, Rubin says, should be occurring only at homes with older meters because they are not compatible with the new system. But these customers are receiving estimated bills until their old meters can be replaced, and should not be receiving increased bills.

“Estimates are based on each individual customer’s history of usage,” Rubin says. “The first thing I would tell someone if they say their bill is wrong, is they should look at whether it’s an estimated bill or actual. If it’s an actual bill they’re receiving, and it’s higher than normal, it’s very likely they have a leak inside their home.”

But inaccurate readings from advanced meter-reading infrastructure are not unheard of. In recent years, problems with smart meters have been reported in cities in Washington, Michigan and New York.   

And water meters manufactured by Sensus USA Inc., the company that manufactured Pittsburgh’s newly installed meters, were found to be defective in Phoenix, and Faribult, Minn.; there, the cities lost money because the meters were not reading accurately.

Lucinda Wolff, of Mount Washington, says she has been experiencing two of the most common problems cited — reported increased usage and late-arriving bills.

“The problems started this new year,” Wolff says. “Maybe if they get swamped with thousands of complaints, they’ll correct it.”

For the past three months, Wolff’s water bills have been mailed to her late. Her February payment, for example, was due on Feb. 22, but she didn’t receive a bill until Feb. 28. As of March 23, she still had not received this month’s bill.

At her son’s house, bills have been arriving but are greatly increased from average usage over the past three years. According to her records, her son’s water bills have averaged between $20 and $50. But his February “estimated” bill was $109.77, and his March “actual” bill was $221.69.

“The customer had [two] consecutive estimates in the system followed by an actual reading. The estimates were comparable to their previous months’ usage,” said Rubin, after reviewing the usage at Wolff’s son’s home on Clarence Street. “During the estimated period, the customer had increased consumption that became evident when the actual reading was received.”

But Wolff says water usage has not increased at the home, and their inspection of the water meter showed there are no leaks.

“This is not just one or two or three people,” Wolff says. “It’s a bigger issue, and they just don’t seem to grasp that, or they don’t want to. It’s ridiculous.”


Smart meters are a ‘costly mistake’ that’ll add BILLIONS to bills

Smart meters are a ‘costly mistake’ that’ll add BILLIONS to bills

Institute of Directors warns against giganto UK.gov cock-up

Smart Meter keeps you on top of your spending

  Alexander J Martin

A report from the Institute of Directors (IoD) warns that the government’s rollout of smart meters “should be ‘halted, altered or scrapped’ to avoid a potentially catastrophic government IT disaster.”

The report, entitled “Not too clever: will Smart Meters be the next Government IT disaster?” describes the £11bn scheme as “unwanted by consumers, over-engineered and mind-blowingly expensive.”

The Major Projects Authority has carried out three assessments into the smart meter programme; however, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has refused to publish them, citing commercial sensitivity.

Dan Lewis, report co-author and Senior Infrastructure Advisor at the IoD, describes a “political consensus” regarding the rollout as “a conspiracy of silence among politicians in thrall to big ideas and even bigger budgets.”

“This is not an age when we have to take the government in trust on numbers. This is not where we should be at in the twenty first century,” Lewis told The Register.

The abject failure of previous infrastructure projects, from the eBorders shambles to the NHS National Programme for IT, raises large questions about the Government’s ability to implement this programme.

Earlier this month, the Energy and Climate Change Committee stated the program was running the risk of being “a costly failure,” and was likely to cost most consumers more than it could save them.

Dan Lewis told The Register that the project was essentially the product of a “pre-smartphone age.”

The IoD also raised concerns that the the largest government IT project in history may quickly become obsolete, and could even expose consumers to cyber threats.

Alongside providing a vector for criminal data access, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) reported in 2012 how the rollout entailed “considerable risks to the protection of personal data,” from the smart meter providers without adequate consumer protections in place.

“It enables massive collection of personal data from European households and may lead to tracking what members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes.” stated Peter Hustinx, the EDPS.

Lewis also told The Register that from the impracticality of smart gas meters and a failure to recognise differences in population density (which raises costs for meter inspectors) between the UK and Sweden, the programme seems to be constructed from counter-intuitive data which is not being made public.

“There is no transparency of the numbers,” says Lewis. “The public hasn’t been given access to the numbers behind the cost/benefit analysis. We might well end up with a situation in which the fuel poor are effectively subsidising the fuel profligate.”

The report states that among the lessons to be learned was “that the process of creating a large piece of digital infrastructure is hugely complex and fraught with the potential for error.”

Lewis did describe the professed aims of the smart meter programme as laudable: “We all recognise the benefits of reducing consumption and increasing energy awareness. But there is little credible evidence to suggest that a scheme of this size and complexity will achieve those goals.”

A survey of IoD members showed that 80 per cent rated the ability of government to manage large IT projects as “poor or very poor.”

The IoD report recommends that an incoming government should consider the following changes:

  • Stop the smart gas meter deployment – only a handful of EU nations are planning to deploy gas smart meters by 2020. This would save billions of pounds.
  • Remove the requirement for an “in home” display – expected to cost £800m in total, the displays will be out of date in a few years. Far better to connect smart meters to people’s phones, tablets and PCs
  • Abandon attempts to stretch the rollout to tower blocks – the most technically challenging aspect of the project with the lowest potential returns. This would remove seven million homes from the scheme.
  • Limit the rollout to homes with high energy usage – those who use more than 5,100 kWh of electricity, and 23,000 kWh of gas a year have much more to gain. This would reduce the scale of the rollout by 80%.
  • Make the programme genuinely voluntary – offered to customers at their own expense, not subsidised by all.
  • Abandon the whole programme and develop a smart phone app instead – look into developing a smart app which would convert a photo of their current mechanical meter into a meaningful number for the suppliers. This would cost tens of thousands of pounds rather than billions.

Smart Energy GB responded to the IoD report, claiming the IoD “does not understand what’s needed to secure Britain’s energy infrastructure for the future. They are suggesting that the future of our energy supply should rely on an amateur solution, with old and new technology muddled up and people texting in photos of old meters to fill in the gaps.”

When asked of the response he expected the report to receive, Lewis acknowledged that he didn’t expect the project to be cancelled overnight. “When you work in the think-tank sector you understand that it isn’t always a matter of immediate response. You do this for individuals who can make their own case.”

“This is something the next government can look at,” he added. “The rollout is not until April 2016. That is plenty of time to publicise the numbers underpinning the cost/benefit analysis.” ®