Philadelphia resident Marita Wagner was shocked when she discovered her autopay settings had allowed nearly $4,500 to be pulled out of her bank account for a single month's water bill. (Courtesy Marita Wagner)

A new batch of Philly residents has been hit with astronomically high water bills, and they’re outraged.

“It’s robbery, that’s what’s going on,” one person wrote last week, in one of many angry comments and commiserations filling a lengthy Nextdoor thread.

“Something is definitely WRONG here!!” said another.

“Wow, the water department loves to make people 🙁unhappy,” wrote a third.

Their complaints echo stories that Philadelphia Water Department customers have been telling for the last two years, since the city-owned utility started upgrading residents’ home water meters.

PWD contends that the high charges are extremely rare and the vast majority of upgraded customers are satisfied. If you do get a big bill, you can appeal it or work out a payment plan, a spokesperson said. 

But while some people say they’re just seeing somewhat higher charges, a few report receiving a gigantic monthly bill after upgrading — $3,000, $5,000, even $8,000, according to one commenter — and then struggling to get help from the company.

“I ended up with a $1,900 water bill,” one customer wrote on NextDoor. “You can try to appeal it, but I had no luck. I had them put me on a payment plan. That was the best I could do.”

As it has been since mega-bills first started arriving in people’s mailboxes, PWD continues to stress that it’s trying to educate people about “estimated bills,” which can come in too low and lead to big catch-up charges later on. 

The utility is urging people to get the upgrades, which allow accurate, real-time meter readings and all but eliminate estimates. 

“My biggest fear is that people see this stuff and they’re worried that if they get their meter upgraded, they’re going to get a big bill,” spokesperson Brian Rademaekers said. “It’s a pretty rare circumstance, but if it does happen, we can work with you in a lot of different ways to make sure that it’s not like a huge financial hit.”

If you don’t upgrade your meter, your water will eventually get shut off, he added.

For those residents who have received massive bills, however, those responses provide little solace. Given that estimated billing has been a problem for years and PWD is well aware of it, why is it still happening?

What’s this meter upgrade about?

For decades water department staff read meters by driving through neighborhoods. They’d collect usage data broadcast by radio devices that were attached to meters inside homes.

That system wasn’t reliable. Sometimes the data couldn’t be collected and PWD would send out bills based on estimates (educated guesses, essentially) of how much water people had used in the previous month.

Even back then, there were instances when the utility would get an actual reading after a long period of estimated billing and see it had been undercharging a household the whole time, spokesperson Rademaekers said. The customer would then be hit with a big bill for the difference.

In summer 2021, the department started sending contractors into customers’ homes to swap out the old radios for new ones that send out usage data more reliably, and don’t depend on staff driving around.

If you’ve been getting estimated bills for a while, and a newly installed radio sends out an accurate meter reading, there may be a difference between the amount you’ve been paying and what PWD believes you actually owe. 

That’s especially the case if at some point during that interval you had a leaky pipe, a running toilet, or a dripping faucet that used up a lot of water, the utility says.

My monthly bill is what?!

One issue is PWD’s shock-and-awe billing method, which occasionally springs a giant monthly bill on a customer, seemingly out of the blue. 

People who auto-pay their water bills have unexpectedly had thousands withdrawn from their checking accounts.

“For some people that could cause all kinds of chaos,” said Marita Wagner, a Mt. Airy resident who saw $4,459 disappear from her bank account after a meter upgrade in March. 

“Luckily, I have a healthy amount in there, but that could ruin somebody’s mortgage. It could have been bad.”

Some of the Nextdoor commenters said they were stunned to see their usual charge of $40 or $60 replaced by a number ending with multiple zeroes, as if that was going to be their monthly bill going forward.

Comments on Nextdoor from July 2023 include several complaints about unexpectedly high water bills. (Nextdoor/Screenshot)

On the historical water-use chart that appears on printed water bills, PWD puts the whole amount in one month rather than indicating the water was used over a longer period. 

Wagner said her chart showed her consuming 536 units of water in one month rather than the 3 or 4 units she usually uses — an increase upwards of 13,000%.  

When Stacey Long, another Mt. Airy resident, called PWD to appeal her huge make-up charge, “they had the audacity to ask me, ‘Well, do you have a leak anywhere?’” she recalled. “I said, to the tune of $5,600 in a month? Are you kidding? No.”

But that’s an accumulated amount, not a monthly charge.

That’s a heck of leak

Even if the water use was spread out over several months, affected customers often say it’s impossible they used so much. Their water usage has been reasonable and steady for years, and they haven’t had leaks or other issues, they say.

In most cases households have been receiving estimated readings for just a few months, said Rademaekers, the water department spokesperson. Yet somehow a number of them managed to build up huge bills in a short time.

Long, for example, says her monthly charges used to be $25 to $30. Since her meter was upgraded in March it’s gone up to about $70.

That suggests that before the upgrade, she may have been paying $40 to $45 less per month than she owed. 

She doesn’t know long she was supposedly underpaying for water, but with a $45 difference it would take 124 months—more than 10 years—to reach $5,600, unless she had some large surge of water use that began and ended without her knowing.

Rademaekers said that does happen. In some cases a lack of accurate meter readings that would have revealed high water use kept them from realizing what was happening, he said.

“There could be a leak going on, and they didn’t get a big bill, so they didn’t know. That’s more likely if you have an estimated reading,” he said.

A Philadelphia kitchen sink (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Customers argue it’s not their fault

Another issue may be a lack of awareness of how water billing works. 

In an interview last week, Long seemed unfamiliar with estimated billing despite having already gotten a huge catch-up charge, calling the water department multiple times, and lodging an appeal in April.

“It’s a lame explanation,” Long said, after hearing about estimated billing. “If you’re estimating bills, and you don’t really say anything to your customers, I don’t think your customers should be on the line for that. I think you have to eat that cost.”

She was also unsure about how to find and log on to the water department’s billing website.

PWD insists that it’s up to customers to carefully examine their bills, whether the mailed or online versions, to see if they’re getting estimated charges. 

But it’s unclear if people are getting that message and understanding it, and if they’re taking more than cursory glances at their bills.

“In reality, we do have to have some shared responsibility with the customer,” Rademaekers said. “We need the customer do some things too, to help us make sure we’re doing your service correctly.”

PWD says people are missing the message

PWD has been trying to inform customers about these issues, for example by mailing notices to homes where the utility can’t get a good meter reading, but with mixed success, he said. 

“We have a very low response rate. Even when we send out letters to people telling them it’s time to upgrade their meter because their meter is dying, only about 20% of the people respond,” he said.

The department posts to NextDoor neighborhood pages when an area is being targeted for upgrades and sends multiple notices to homeowners who need to schedule an upgrade, he said. Those include three water bill messages, four letters, numerous phone calls, and two in-person visits by staff who leave behind doorknob hangers. 

When we send out letters to people telling them it’s time to upgrade their meter … only about 20% of the people respond.

Philadelphia Water Dept. Spokesperson

There’s also door-knocking by contractors in areas where upgrades are happening, and calls and visits by staff before a water shutoff, he said.

However, other than through mailed notices, PWD does not appear to communicate much about estimated billing. The most recent relevant messages on its Facebook and Twitter accounts date to last December. While its Instagram account frequently posts about a variety of water-related topics, there’s been nothing about estimated billing in at least a year and half.

The water department did post an explanation of “sky-high” water bills on its website. One post directs customers to examine their bills, although the sample bill it links to doesn’t appear to actually show the word “estimated.” 

Instead it tells them to look for light blue bars on a usage chart, as opposed to the dark blue bars that indicate actual water use.

A series of missteps

Customers also report other problems related to meter upgrades, estimated readings and billing.

Wagner and several other NextDoor commenters said they were confused when they got three or four different water bills, with different charges listed, in the space of a month after their upgrades. Rademaekers said he did not know why that was happening and had not heard of many people receiving duplicate bills.

The appeal process can be a struggle. One customer had to fight for 19 months to get a $3,500 refund, the Inquirer reported.

Sometimes the water department also makes genuine snafus. 

In 2021, thousands of customers received erroneous bills, including one who got a $15,000 bill, due to a mistake by a PWD contractor unrelated to meters. One person interviewed by The Inquirer got a $5,000 bill because a contractor read the wrong meter.

Marita Wagner, the Mt. Airy resident with the $4,459 charge, had an unusual situation in which her first meter upgrade failed, so she got a second upgrade, which resulted in the big bill. She called to complain but the money was taken out of her bank account nonetheless, she said.

“I can’t believe how incompetent that water company is. Just every step of the way they screw up. It looks like they might be doing it on purpose,” she said.

Her April appeal was supposed to be resolved within 30 days, but last week she said she hadn’t heard anything.

In response to questions from Billy Penn, the Water Department and the Water Revenue Bureau, the arm that investigates appeals, looked into Wagner’s case and said she had already been credited back about $4,000.

The Water Revenue Bureau granted her appeal in May, but a data entry error kept it from being fully processed until the end of June, spokesperson Christian Crespo said. Crespo said the agency sent Wagner a notification letter in the first week of July, although on Friday she said she had never received it. 

She did receive an emailed form she can fill out to get her money refunded to her bank account, as well as calls from several water department and Water Revenue Bureau staffers, she said.

She still thinks the department is incompetent, though.

“What kind of company lets people build up bills of thousands of dollars unbeknownst to them?” she said. “That’s crazy.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...