S&WB Selects Contractor for ‘Smart Metering’ Program to Solve Billing Issues | Local policy

The Sewerage and Water Board selected a contractor on Wednesday to install electronic water meters in New Orleans homes and businesses, continuing its plan to fix a notoriously error-prone billing system that has plagued customers with outrageous bills for years.

Aqua-Metric, a Riverside, Calif.-based company that says it has installed 180 meter-reading systems in other cities, has been approved as a supplier for the ‘smart meter’ project of the S&WB, a large construction company. about $65 million to replace New Orleans. ‘ 140,000 analog meters.

The S&WB hopes to start installing new meters before the end of the year, but the long-running project could take another three years, depending on how long it takes to negotiate a contract.

Shoe prints in what was wet cement lie next to a water meter cover from the Sewerage & Water Board. (Eliot Kamenitz, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

At the utility’s board meeting on Wednesday, S&WB executive director Ghassan Korban made no secret of his excitement: “In today’s range of motion, it’s just incredible. I’m stunned. I am stressed. I’m excited.”

New Orleans is far behind other cities in upgrading to automatic counting technology, which became available about two decades ago. Once installed, the electronic meters will monitor customers’ water consumption in real time and send the information back to the S&WB.

“A broken system”

The current system in New Orleans relies on meter readers going door to door to check water usage; it uses estimates when a meter is broken, or when a car or other obstacle blocks access. In recent months, S&WB staff have also resorted to estimating when there aren’t enough workers to cover readers’ daily routes.

Korban said this “sets the stage for an essentially failing system.”

Estimated meter readings, which Korban says are the biggest cause of inaccurate bills, were used about 25% of the time in the 12 months ending in February, the most recent month for which data is available. Korban said the industry standard for estimated bills is 5% or less.

“It’s endemic, because it’s not just one region or district where the estimates take place,” Korban said.

Months to fix unpaid bills

Reasonable estimates are easier when there are enough real readings to draw from, but accounts with frequent estimates create a “perpetual” cycle of hard-to-verify estimates, he said.

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Even actual readings can produce inaccurate bills, due to the number of steps involved in collecting data from underground meters, matching the data to the correct house, and loading it into billing software.

“This simple process is fraught with potential for human error,” Korban said.

When there is a mistake, the problem can drag on for months or years.

“This happens often”

Downtown resident Janet Marshall’s troubles began in February 2020, when she received a bill for $905, about seven times her usual monthly bill. She complained via the S&WB website and received an automated response telling her that an investigation could take up to six months.

Marshall continued to pay the typical amount, as the utility asks customers to do during billing inquiries. But the next two years were filled with more outlandish bills, errant disconnect notices and other anomalies.

There were two different bills with different amounts in the same month, and one bill showed payments on an installment plan she had never discussed.

Finally, earlier this year, a hearing officer sided with Marshall and cleared the errant balance. She hasn’t had any issues since.

“I understand from talking with people that this happens a lot,” Marshall said. “Something is seriously wrong.”

The town hall intervenes

Billing issues at S&WB have recently exploded and turned into a political headache for Korban and Mayor LaToya Cantrell. A bill backed by the City Council and advanced in the Louisiana Legislature would authorize the council to establish ordinance billing policies.

Still, selecting Aqua-Metric is only a first step toward solving the problem. Many details of the project will not be clear until a contract has been signed. For example, Aqua-Metric will need to install radio towers on the S&WB property, but the number and locations have not been determined.

“Part of that negotiation of terms is going to drill down into some design details,” said Rebecca Johnsey, S&WB engineer and project manager.

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Ryan H. Bowman