KPRC 2 Investigates discovered the City of Houston was overcharging homeowners for more than 10 times the water they used because city employees were incorrectly reading their water meters. Investigator Amy Davis stepped in when customers were feeling absolutely DRAINED while trying to make the Houston water department listen to reason for more than three months. This is just the latest case in our massive KPRC 2 Investigation into the City of Houston water department.
How do you read a water meter?
If you have ever looked at your water meter you know it is just a series of numbers. 0-0-6-4 could mean you used 64 hundred gallons of water. But for dozens of homeowners in brand new homes, the water department was charging them for 64,000 gallons of water. The error left them owing hundreds more dollars than they should have.
“In my case, I think it read 0050 and they recorded 50,000 instead of 5,000,” said Richie Kmack.
Richie Kmack, Nick Smart, and Gage Cope are neighbors in a brand-new development called The Grove at Oak Forest; and they are DRAINED.
“Nothing makes sense. Everything’s inconsistent,” said Smart.
“They hit me with 40,000 gallons of usage and a $972 water bill,” explains Cope.
Their homes are brand new; and so are the water meters the City of Houston installed. That means their water meters all started at ZERO. But after just one month the new homeowners realized something was way off.
“Our water usage shot up to 20,000 gallons, 32,000 gallons, with me just doing regular things like washing clothes,” said Smart.
Kmack, a civil engineer, was like a detective on a case. He realized the problem when he asked a water department supervisor to explain how they read the meters. She sent him this snapshot from the city’s internal manual that instructs staff to read the first four numbers.
But the new Kamstrup meters the city installed in The Grove at Oak Forest have a different read-out. There is one less digit before the decimal at the front. It means instead of reading the numbers as “6,400 gallons” the customer would be charged for “64,000″ gallons.
“These are new. The meter is working fine. It’s the city not setting them up not knowing how to set them up, not reading the manual, and not contact the manufacturer. It’s very easy,” said Kmack.
City acknowledged staff was reading the meters wrong, updated instructions
But it was not easy getting the city to listen. Kmack spoke with multiple supervisors. The city even sent a field technician out to look at the meters who seemed to agree with Kmack. The water department updated its staff instructions to employees. They even used Kmack’s picture in the manual to notify staff that “some newer models have three numbers after the decimal point.”
Still, the city told Kmack they would not change the way they read the meters.
“I was baffled. How can you say it’s one thing, but then decide you’re gonna continue to bill for something else?” said Kmack.
We reached out to the city in December, and it assigned a case worker to the customers who contacted KPRC 2 Investigates. After a month, the City of Houston told us it discovered 58 customer accounts were misread and billed incorrectly.
All of their outstanding bills have been cleared and corrected and their meters have been replaced.
Why can’t the city see patterns in meter complaints to help identify issues?
We also asked the water department why it isn’t able to see clusters of high water bills and complaints so that these types of issues would raise a red flag. In this case, the city was speaking to each of these customers as if their meter issues were individual, isolated cases. A city spokesperson replied “These specific meters were installed at various addresses throughout our service area. As in prior communication, we have addressed all billing concerns regarding this is with our customers. Customer complaints are reviewed on a case by case basis and when a pattern is determined, appropriate measures are taken to resolve any issue directly with the account holder(s).”
The city says it is also now looking into overcharges paid by the developer and builder before the accounts were switched to the new homeowners. In Kmack’s case, for instance, his meter showed that 8 gallons of water was used before his name was on the account. That means the city would have billed the developer for 8,000 gallons of water.
Do you need help regarding your water bill?
You can see our full ‘DRAINED’ Investigative series into the City of Houston water department. We will keep investigating any issues you send us. (The ‘DRAINED’ contact form is here.) We are currently working on several cases involving customers being overcharged and we will have updates on those cases in a few weeks.
Houston Public Works encourages customers to contact Customer Account Services at 713.341.1400 with any billing questions or concerns regarding their account.