This story was updated at 4:55 p.m. on June 17, 2014.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission uses “antiquated” technology for reading customers’ meters and lacks an independent means to deal with complaints of excessive water bills, according to a Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection report.
The report, released Monday, found that further independent review might be necessary on the unprecedented number of complaints to the county about water bills that seemed excessive.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda had requested that the Office of Consumer Protection look into WSSC’s billing practices after getting a large number of complaints from residents.
Since April, about 50 residents have complained that they’ve received bills that were much higher than normal, according to the report.
But the report notes that the amount of individual bills can’t be used to determine if there’s a problem, because billing periods vary and rates sometimes change.
“While there is no ‘one size fits all’ explanation for each consumer’s allegations, there appear to be a limited number of possible explanations,” for why some bills are higher than others — including a customer using more water, a leak or an improperly read or malfunctioning meter, according to the report.
In some cases, usage could spike as much as 400 percent or a meter could show a drop in usage, after which readings would return to normal.
According to the report, WSSC uses a variety of internal methods to address billing complaints, such as groups to help resolve disputes. It also can waive fees to have staff check for leaks or test meters to make sure they’re working properly.
“All of the current avenues of redress for consumers with regard to billing disputes are administered within WSSC and without requiring WSSC to report to any independent review body,” the report said.
Although the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils have some say over rates, they don’t seem to have jurisdiction on complaints such as billing disputes, it said.
In a statement Monday, Berliner said the report confirmed the need for an independent way for customers to challenge bills they believe are wrong.
Berliner said he’ll work with state lawmakers to create an independent forum.
WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said Tuesday that the commission was drafting an official letter to the Office of Consumer Protection.
The commission has previously said it believes the higher bills were due to longer billing cycles because of the winter’s bad weather.
It expects the next billing cycle to be lower because of the shorter time period, Neustadt said.
The report also faulted the commission’s outdated technology as a potential cause of the billing problems.
WSSC maintains about 475,000 residential water meters in Montgomery County, according to the report.
About 161,000 of those are outside a home. More than 313,000 are inside a home — of which about 19,000 can only be read by a WSSC employee going into the home.
The commission maintains 386 residential meters that can be read electronically using “drive-by” technology.
Comparatively, all of Rockville’s residential meters can be read using that technology, and most of the meters in Howard County can be read electronically through radio interface, which lowers the chance of human error, according to the report.
While it’s not clear that inaccurate readings were behind the complaints, “the lack of more sophisticated ‘drive-by’ electronic meter reading technology as employed by other local water jurisdictions gives the appearance that WSSC’s meter reading infrastructure and capabilities are antiquated by comparison and therefore potentially subject to inaccurate readings,” the report said.