City water meters say "answer unclear–try again later"

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KHOU had a segment on Thursday’s news about the faulty transmitters used by the City of Houston Public Works department to obtain water meter readings. It’s not the first time they’ve looked into this issue, either; it’s not even the second time. It seems the Brown-era program to read electronically all water meters in the city, now $21 million (and counting) over budget, and nearly four years overdue, hasn’t worked quite as advertised. Surprisingly, sticking electronic devices into often-flooded holes in the ground (and then running over them with everything from lawnmowers to large tractor trailers) has led to a very high failure rate, quoted at 47%. Perhaps we can suggest using a “Magic 8-ball” to improve reliability?

Carroll Shanks from Kingwood said he uses about as much water as the next guy, so you can imagine his surprise when he got a letter in the mail that began, “Dear Sir or Madam, due to an inadvertent reading[sic] of your water meter you now owe $1,486.”

The problem is that the city’s electronic water meter wasn’t tracking his usage and although he continued to be billed, it was only for a minimum amount.

Conceived in the late 1990s as a way to reduce costs by making a large meter reading staff unnecessary, Public Works sold the council on the project by claiming that only about seven techs would be needed to maintain over 400,000 transmitters across the city. The council of that time was concerned by the idea that no one would be checking up on the electronics, and extracted a promise from Public Works that it would read every meter at least once per year to ensure that the transmitters were reporting correctly.

Ten years ago, the City of Houston had approximately one hundred meter readers on staff, according to the Houston Chronicle. To read the meters once per year (instead of once per month) should logically take 1/12 of the staff, or about eight meter readers, over and above the seven technicians required to maintain the transmitters. For whatever reason, those were never budgeted–not that the department ever managed to cut that far back anyway: currently it claims to have sixty. The figure of seven technicians is also highly questionable: if the city had been fully equipped with the 440,000 transmitters, even assuming the optimistic ten years would mean an average of 44,000 changes per year–which works out to 22 transmitter changes per 8-hour day–roughly one every twenty minutes, counting travel time and dealing with obstacles like traffic, fences, and their own personal safety from dogs and more dangerous predators. Complaining that heads should roll for this “discrepancy” is pointless; they already did–right out the door, smiling, with their pensions still intact, back in 2004. Even the council can’t be punished for failing to follow up–thanks to term limits, none of the council members from 1998-99 is still in office to remember and oversee PW&E’s promise.

The City of Houston was the first large department to try putting transmitters in “pit” boxes (in ground). While NATO milspec was required for durability and moisture penetration, one of the two manufacturers was unable to provide equipment that was even marginally reliable. Unfortunately, the contract allowed it to claim the defects were actually problems caused by the COH employees during the complex installation process required by their equipment, leaving the city stuck with thousands of useless meter registers at roughly $25-60 each, several years ago. The end result was Wayne Dolcefino’s “dumpster diving” segment at the Public Works meter shop, revealing cases of brand-new registers thrown away, and a very lumpy rug under which everything got swept. That contractor got dropped, and now the city buys from a sole supplier: Itron. A second supplier is being “tested” but the inside word is that the equipment isn’t compatible with Itron’s readers.

The 1998 council was also told that the transmitters’ batteries were good for at least seven years, but were expected to last about ten. The continued delays and overruns mean that many transmitters are now dying, despite the fact that the entire city still isn’t equipped. Actually, as noted in a recent Matt Stiles article in the Chronicle (available online to subscribers only):

“The City and Itron are testing the newer transmitter, which likely will first replace some 180,000 models installed in 1998 that have dying batteries. Other transmitters that failed were replaced with the older technology. They also will get an update eventually.”

It doesn’t help that the transmitters’ failure rate is often “enhanced” accidentally or otherwise, by severed wires, metal objects on top of the meter box, or being run over by vehicles. Of course, this isn’t a problem for the city, as it authorizes itself to estimate the meter readings indefinitely–without telling the customer. Regarding Mr. Shanks’ transmitter:

“Now normally what we do is read them manually or at least use historical data and in this instance it fell through the cracks and we weren’t able to do that,” said Gary Norman, with Public Works.

Sorry, but that’s just not true. Without adequate personnel, a defective transmitter may mean many months, even a few years between reads. My sources state that in addition to the problems caused by the bad transmitters, the personnel shortage has gotten to the point where it was necessary during the late summer to estimate some areas on the east side of the city, because the schedule could not be maintained. Most of the time, those estimates are very close, if not on target. However, if the customer has an erratic usage history, suffers a serious leak, or only uses water heavily in specific seasons (such as lawn watering), the estimates may be wildly inaccurate. If that inaccuracy is on the low side, look out when the “catch-up” bill hits!

Readers of blogHOUSTON forums may recall a discussion of failure points–the widespread use of unreliable transmitters has introduced two new failure points into the water billing: the transmitter itself, and the resulting bad estimates. Actually, due to technical quirks, there are even more potential failures that occur in rare cases, and the short-staffing is adding yet another. This means a greater need for personnel to review and correct bills, as well as handle complaints. Eventual utilization of the city’s wi-fi network (assuming it gets built) will add yet another link in an already weak chain–to quote a fictional, but famous engineer: “The more complicated they make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the toilet.” Public trust has been decreasing in the meters for some time — thanks to the defective transmitters and widespread bill estimations, requests for meter tests, even on brand-new meters, have been rising. Since the department lacks a reliable method of testing in situ, the tests that PW&E agrees to undertake invariably mean removal/replacement of the meter. Current ordinances do not permit the city to shift the cost for these useless tests onto the rate-payer. To cut costs, meters are being re-used for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Naturally, Public Works has responded by slashing its staff tasked with handling contact and complaint duties. Ten years ago, the department maintained a dozen employees for people to see and speak with face-to-face if they had problems, and as many more to respond to “hot” complaints from the public, media, mayor’s office, and council members. Today there are less than half that. Fifty telephone representatives awaited callers; today it’s barely 30, and turnover is constant. Who takes up the slack during heavy call volume days, when it takes ten to fifteen minutes to get through to someone by phone? The staff responsible for correcting erroneous bills, of course–which was also slashed. Ten years ago, the Utility Customer Service Branch of Public Works had 510 employees. Today it has around 300, despite adding Kingwood plus another 40,000 accounts from growth and development– that’s about sixty-five thousand total. Under Mayor Brown, this was called “belt-tightening.” Exactly why it should be necessary to tighten the belt so drastically in one of the city’s profit-making divisions is unclear. The phrase “penny-wise and pound foolish” may never have been so appropriate.

Shanks believes that’s just bad business. “I’m not contesting the fact that water flowed thru that meter. The issue is they installed a faulty product,” Shanks said.

Well, to be fair, Mr. Shanks wasn’t exactly beating anyone’s door down to inform the City that he was receiving minimum bills based on the same meter reading every month, despite watering his lawn. But should he have to? Should PW&E’s Utility Maintenance remain so short-staffed, that no one will notice, and nothing get done about it? It’s bad engineering, bad planning, bad business, and bad government. Such is the legacy of Mayor “Baby Doc” Brown.

Although, when it comes to meters, Mayor White may have a penchant for following his lead.

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About ubu roi 35 Articles
Ubu Roi is a local civil servant who sometimes writes about what he sees.