A Philadelphia kitchen sink (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As Philadelphia upgrades its water meters, some residents are facing an unpleasant surprise: water bills in the thousands of dollars. A few even saw their service shut off because they didn’t upgrade quickly enough.

The upgrade is to install real-time tracking in water meters, already used in many other locales. Plagued with one hiccup after another, the program is about one-third complete after three years in the works, per the Water Department — and customers are increasingly frustrated.

Walnut Hill resident Victoria McManus recently found out she owed $1,091 after getting her meter upgraded. She caught sight of the charge just in time.

“I turned off autopay before it yanked all that money out of my bank account,” she told Billy Penn.

After several attempts to contact someone for explanation, McManus said she was eventually told the problem was that previously, she’d only been charged for stormwater, not for usage. The big bill is to make up the difference.

Advised she could file a dispute, McManus said she did, but hadn’t yet heard back. (It can take up to 90 days to investigate, per the Water Revenue Bureau.) If McManus doesn’t get relief, she was told there are payment plans she could employ.

Eliminating the undercharging issue is one of the main goals of the meter upgrade program, said PWD spokesperson Brian Rademaekers, who stressed the importance of the upgrades.

“Shutoffs are always the last enforcement option used after all other attempts to resolve issues are exhausted,” Rademaekers said. If it does happen, he said 90% of the time service is restored within 24 hours.

The tech being added is a transmitter that shares water usage data with the department in real time. It also comes with real-time leak alerts. Similar “smart meter” technology was installed in New York City over a decade ago.

Philadelphia’s timing was inopportune. Less than a year after the program’s July 2019 launch, COVID made it tough for installers to enter people’s homes to do the work. Then the global chip shortage set things back further.

An initiative like this is bound to run into hiccups, said Howard Neukrug, a former Philadelphia water commissioner who now runs The Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Every time you make a change, if you’re doing it for half a million homes, you’re going to have blips,” Neukrug said. “Some of those blips are definitely the utility’s fault, or issues, and some of it is the homeowners’.”

That doesn’t ease the shock of an unexpected thousand-dollar water charge.

One resident of a South Philly rowhome told Billy Penn that post-meter upgrade, they got a bill for more than $5k.

The person, who asked to remain anonymous while they actively dispute the charges, said they were told it’s the customer’s responsibility to notice if they’re being undercharged, then call the water department and ask for it to be fixed.

Rademaekers confirmed the onus falls on the resident, even if you use autopay.

“Any customer who receives a bill stating that they have an estimated reading must contact the Water Department to schedule a meter repair or replacement,” the Water Department spokesperson said.

Trying to normalize multithousand-dollar bills? A sample image at the top of a Water Department blog post titled ‘Five reasons tenants should become water customers’ Credit: City of Philadelphia

Dropped calls disrupt customer service

About one-third of Philadelphia homes — well over 100k —  had successfully upgraded their meters as of late May, per PWD spokesperson Rademaekers, who said most people have had a smooth experience. The department serves in total about 480k residential accounts.

In March, however, some residents saw their water turned off because they hadn’t responded to attempts to start the meter upgrade.

Notably, this happened at a time when water shutoffs due to nonpayment were suspended because of the pandemic. But these still went through.

Several shut-off residents from West Philadelphia reached out to Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. All three said they had been contacted about upgrading their water meters, but weren’t able to adjust their schedules to accommodate the appointment, Jones told Billy Penn. “They have a life,” he said.

In other cities that have made similar upgrades, policies on not granting water meter access vary. On Long Island, for instance, New York American Water imposes a $25 fee for residents who fail to provide access to their meter after three attempts.

Jones brought up the access issues during PWD’s council budget hearing in late April.

“There were cases where people just couldn’t be home to let you guys in. There were cases where they didn’t get notification that you wanted to get in. There were cases when they were reluctant to let anyone into their home during COVID and they didn’t know [postponing the upgrade] was available,” Jones said. “There are cases where people didn’t know until the day of the shutoff that they were going to be victimized in that way.”

In testimony in response, Deputy Water Commissioner Donna Schwartz acknowledged some people were moved to the end of the list because they expressed COVID-19 concerns.

“If you did no response whatsoever to any of the mailings or any of our attempts to contact you, then yes, we did shut off,” Schwartz said.

A Philadelphia water meter waiting to be replaced. The transmitter is the old kind that sends out info to a car driving by, where the new version will transmit to the cloud. Credit: Lizzy McLellan Ravitch

Some attempts at customer response might have been missed, however, at no fault to residents.

The contractors doing the meter upgrade are also handling meter upgrade-related customer service, per Rademaekers. A software issue discovered last month was causing some calls to be dropped when PWD operators transferred them over, he said.

“We addressed this issue and are currently working with the city to upgrade to a completely new phone system for the meter shop,” Rademaekers added. He also noted social media and email are monitored for complaints.

Less than a year ago, PWD admitted a separate error when 17,000 residents reported massive water bills. That one had nothing to do with their meters, according to Rademaekers, who said a faulty file transfer from the meter reading company PWD uses was to blame.

Why do meter upgrades in the first place?

Previously, water meter readers drove by each residence once per month to get usage information, via a transmitter that shares data with PWD vehicles as they pass through the area.

Neukrug, the former commissioner who’s now at Penn, said Philadelphia was among the first cities to implement the drive-by system in the 1990s. Before that, meter-reading required a knock on the door. If the staffer couldn’t get access, the customer would get an estimated bill. Underestimates followed by a bigger charge later were much more common back then, Neukrug said.

The new, upgraded meter technology sends data hourly without any need to drive past.

“If we reach out to you and say it’s time to upgrade your meter, that’s a good thing” PWD spokesperson Rademaekers said.

Three contractors are doing 85% of the upgrades, he said. It’s typical to have contractors work on a project like this, because the alternative is hiring staff who would then be without a job once the project is finished, according to Neukrug. PWD’s metering department is doing the other 15% or residences, plus all the commercial and industrial properties.

The department is aiming to finish within the next two years, water operations administration manager Steve Junod said.

If you haven’t yet been contacted about your meter upgrade, there’s currently no way to see when it will be your turn. The department isn’t publishing the upgrade routes “for security reasons,” according to Rademaekers, so residents only will know when they’re due for the upgrade by monitoring their mail and bills.

To stay ahead of the game, read your bill — or look on Nextdoor

Before a shut-off happens, Rademaekers said department policy is to place three messages on water bills, send four mailed letters, make multiple phone calls to the number listed on an account, and make at least two in-person visits from staff.

“We continue to look for more ways to inform people of the need to upgrade their meters,” he added.

For instance, PWD has experimented with sending neighborhood-wide alerts using the Nextdoor app, which requires its users to verify their place of residence.

Asked how people can avoid problems with the meter upgrade process, Rademaekers said to follow the instructions in their letter from the department. Residents should ideally know where their water meter is, and make sure it’ll be accessible to technicians when the time comes to upgrade.

People struggling to pay a large bill because of previous underestimates should contact customer service about payment plans or other options, he said.

Dealing with big make-up payments for underestimated bills is tricky and requires a case-by-case analysis, said Neukrug, who spent nearly four decades in the industry. It’s not financially feasible, he suggested, for the city to just forgive all those true-up bills and “start fresh.”

“If I was water king for a day I’d want to have my team review every water bill that’s out of whack and every shutoff, just to make sure you minimize any discomfort and loss of convenience to the customer,” Neukrug said. But “to do that costs money and effort.”