Size Does Matter
A Northeast Heights resident uncovers a water bill mystery
Would it upset you to learn that you might have been paying $35 more than necessary every month on your water bill for the last 13 years? Well, that's just what happened to Richard Gold, and he's not taking it lying down, or even sitting. He's standing straight up and shaking his fist, ready to charge; and it seems like he has every right to hurtle full-speed into the bureaucratic turmoil of Albuquerque government, although it might not do him much good.
The battle between Gold and the city's Water Utility Department all began one summer day in July, when the Northeast Heights resident checked his water bill and saw something that made him look again. As the warmer months approached and watering-the-lawn season drew near, Gold's water bill naturally increased compared to the winter months. Expecting the price of his water bill to climb, he monitored the bill's total from March through May, and gladly paid his amount due. But things started to get shaky when the water consumption nearly doubled from 20,000 gallons in May to 38,000 gallons in June, and Gold had not increased any water usage that he was aware of. The next month's statement reflected a 48,000 gallon usage amounting to a $205 bill (including a $36 penalty for being in extreme excess of the average residential usage, called a "conservation charge"), and this sent Gold through the roof.
By comparison, according to Katherine Yuhas, the city's water conservation officer, the average residential water use in July was about 14,500 gallons. Gold says his modest 900 square-feet of lawn and conscientious watering habits in the summer (10 minutes per day max, he said) should not be guzzling so much water.
Thus the saga began. Gold contacted the city and wanted an explanation; water officials suggested a leak at his home near Tramway and Indian School. And so, following directions given to him by the city, Gold shut off water in his home and watched his water meter carefully, waiting to see if evidence of a leak could be found in a rising meter. Yet, the meter did not rise. Gold and the city both agreed that a leak could not, indeed, be the culprit. Ah, then it must surely be the meter, and out came a serviceman to check the doubted meter. The meter man found that the meter was in order, and so, perplexed, left Gold with no answers, instead offering him a "tag and test" option, which includes removing the meter to take "back" for testing. It would have cost Gold $185, and regardless of whether the meter was proven to be broken or not, either the old meter or a new one would have been replaced, without reimbursement. Gold declined.
During this time Gold learned about the city's Water Service Reduction Request program from a city worker one day when inquiring why his bills were so high. So he applied to the program, hoping that the savings would help counteract the spike in his recent bills.
Still the water meter riddle remained unsolved, and Gold decided to contest the 48,000 gallon bill and paid $50 to have a hearing over the matter. In the hearing the city ruled against him and threatened to shut off his water if he didn't pay the remainder on his account within 30 days; officials also said that if Gold continued to withhold payment the city would foreclose on his home. All this caused by one water bill. The 30-day marker came, along with the meter man, and off went Gold's water last week.
Another piece to this puzzle is that Gold's 77-year-old mother lives with him and had recently returned from the hospital. It was necessary for Gold to have water readily available in order to meet his mother's medical needs. Some of you may not know that when the city comes to shut off your water all they do is turn a knob; so Gold marched right on outside and turned it back on (this is not a recommended tactic, as it happens to be illegal). The city called him a few days later to tell him they knew of his underdog antics, and that they were ready to charge him $400 for turning his water back on. Gold explained he needed water service in order to take care of his ailing mother. But this didn't seem to make a difference—rules are rules.
Gold was finally able to come to somewhat of a resolution with the city when officials agreed to allow him to pay an extra $50 on his water bill every month to eventually pay off the old statement. The water meter poltergeist was never caught, and Gold was ultimately forced to pay the damages.
Yet, a possibly larger issue still remains, which has something to do with the extra $35 a month Gold discovered he was paying on his water bill, and something to do with the Water Service Reduction Request form. He discovered something interesting about the way citywide residents are billed for water usage. That is, the average water and sewer bill is split into two parts: a fixed base charge and a variable charge based upon the water used in a month. The base charge is decided by the size of water pipe that you have in your home. People with larger pipes pay more money every month. Apparently, there's not much of a difference in water flow between three of the more commonly used residential pipes: the three-quarter-inch, one-inch, and one-and-one-quarter-inch, yet there's about a $35 difference a month in what you pay for them (the smaller pipe being less expensive), when you combine the charge for water and sewer service.
Gold noticed on his bill that he was being charged for a No. 3 sized pipe, which is one-and-one-quarter-inch. The base charge for water service with a No. 3 pipe is $24.91 compared to the base charge for a three-quarter-inch, No. 1 pipe, which is $9.62. Likewise, the base sewer charge for a No. 3 pipe is $31.53, compared to $12 for a No. 1. "I feel it's incumbent on the city to tell people when they purchase a house about these things," said Gold.
It's fairly easy to change the pipe size that you're being billed for, which doesn't require switching out all of the plumbing in your home. There's an attachment that the city can install on your main water pipe where it enters your home, which thereby reduces the size of the pipe where water enters. You can request to have the attachment installed through a Water Service Reduction Request form. The attachment costs $85 to install, but it then saves a guy like Mr. Gold $35 a month as long as he owns the house. Not a bad investment.
Gold, boasting that he has a degree in math, calculated that over 13 years he had paid about $5,460 more on his water bills than he would have if he had invested the $85 to downgrade his pipe size when he first moved into his house. Hence, the provocation for Gold's rage against the city never informing him about the option of a reduced pipe size. Gold figured that if just 20,000 homes in Albuquerque were being charged in this way, the city was accruing an extra $700,000 a month, and $8.4 million a year more than they would if all of those homes downsized their water flow by a half-inch. Whew.
So why hasn't the city told residents about this potential lifetime savings? They certainly let us know about incentive programs that tie saving money to conserving water, such as rebates when a home installs a low-flow showerhead or toilet, or if they xeriscape their yard (which are all, by the way, very good programs). Yet switching to a smaller pipe size is something that, in the long run, could save Albuquerque citizens quite a bit more money, although it doesn't affect water conservation.
Ann Crandall, the city Collections Manager assigned to Gold's case, said that the city does, in fact, let citizens know of this potential savings. However, in order for people to be aware of it, they have to look at the back of their bill. Apparently, the base charge for a pipe size is listed on the back of every residential water bill, along with a number to call if customers have any questions. It does not, however, state the base charges of different sized pipes, or state that switching pipe sizes is a viable option. The city also doesn't put much energy into including fliers with water bills suggesting that changing pipe sizes is an easy and affordable thing to do.
So what is the moral of this bureaucratic fairy tale? Maybe it's that the city isn't a heartless villain out to pinch the pocketbooks of unsuspecting citizens; but, rather, that it is comprised of honest and hardworking folks who have to figure out how to do good deeds in a kingdom of stubborn policies and uncompromising walls. And maybe Richard Gold is not our typical hero, decked in shiny armor and wielding a large sword. But he sure does wield a strong voice. And perhaps he just saved you a lot of money on your water bill.
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