CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Chesapeake’s director of utilities says “several specific cases recently” of high water bills in the city were in fact due to leaks on the customer’s end, and the recent high bills are not out of the ordinary.
David Jurgens shared the news in a city council work session on Tuesday afternoon, a week after City Manger Christopher Price said the city was looking into the bills. Jurgens says in those “several specific cases” plumbers would first replace apparent faulty parts in toilets without confirming a leak, and then report there was no leak.
“One customer had a leak, they hired a plumber who fixed the leak. Then they checked their system and had no leaks? Good business,” Jurgens said. “But the statement that they had no leaks occurred after they replaced parts of their system.”
In a couple of cases “there were repairs made, there were flappers replaced, they didn’t check to see if the flappers were working … [the plumber] didn’t check to see if they were leaking, he said he replaced them because they were end of life.”
Jurgens said after that, the bill went back to normal monthly levels for that customer.
With the high bill, Jurgens says that customers still have to pay, but the city will work with customers by paying up 50% of the portion that’s above a customer’s average bill. There are also payment plans available.
Jurgens acknowledged just how “shocking” and “an incredible source of stress” that the high bills can be, citing some he’s received himself, and instructs his staff to understand “that these people are our neighbors” when interacting with customers.
He says making sure high bills are paid however is also “equally important to the utility” as the service is self-funded by customers and not through tax money. He says if high bills continue to be forgiven, that cost is added to everyone else’s bill.
Jurgens went into detail to council on Tuesday just how bad for example a broken flapper on a toilet (the most common issue) can be over the course of a two-month billing cycle when customers don’t know they have a leak. A flapper stuck open and running in a place such as an infrequently used bathroom can run 4.5 gallons per minute and lead to bills near $9,000. Several people recently in Chesapeake and in other local cities have reported bills in the thousands, leading to the formation of the Hampton Roads Water Facebook support group.
There are also less severe cases when a flapper is only seeping, which could lead to about 0.25 gallons per minute flowing through a toilet. That typically bumps up a water bill by about $500, he says.
Jurgens emphasized that water has to flow through a meter for it to register. The current meters are on a “closed loop” with no batteries or electricity, and old or faulty meters will always show less water usage, not more. He says there are about 70,000 meters across the city in total.
So what’s being done to help make sure customers are notified quicker and not stuck with a big bill?
Jurgens says the city is in the process of securing and installing “smart” meters that will be able to notify customers of abnormal water usage much quicker, and billing cycles will be reduced from a two-month cycle to a one-month cycle. Ultimately, customers will be able to see their live water usage online and be alerted when issues pop up.
More than $23 million has been budgeted for the smart meters in the city, but supply chain issues have slowed their arrival. Residential meters have been ordered and will be here in late summer, Jurgens says. The whole installation process will take three years, Jurgens says.
Jurgens added he’s also in the process of working with city officials and utility chiefs in other local cities to inform customers to check for possible leaks until those smart meters arrive. Council member S.Z. “Debbie” Ritter suggested that mail inserts be included among other media such as radio ads to make sure people actually get the message.
This article will be updated. In the meantime, WAVY is continuing to look into the issues. If you have problems with your bill, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.