Is it a leak or just a high water bill?
Lake Oswegans are often resigned to seeing water bills that are uncomfortably high, thanks to a series of big-ticket municipal projects in recent years.
Just not this high.
Palisades neighborhood resident Kim Beeler says she normally receives water bills in the range of $125-$230, depending on the season. But when she looked at her bill for March of this year, she noticed that the previous month's bill had shot all the way up to $824.
The spike turned out to be due to a misread water meter, and the City eventually fixed the mistake and issued an updated bill. But in the process, Beeler uncovered a longstanding leak in her house, and says she ran up against some frustrating limits to what the City can do to assist consumers.
"I've been blaming it on rate increases when really, I've had a leak," Beeler says.
Most houses in Lake Oswego have an exterior water meter that displays the amount of all the water that has passed through. Each meter is checked by a contractor once per month, and the recorded totals are used to calculate the home's water usage, rounded to the nearest Centum Cubic Feet (CCF, a unit of measure used by utilities that equals 748 gallons of water).
Meter misreads aren't common, but they do happen a couple of times per month on average, according to Assistant Finance Director Brad Stevens, who helped resolve Beeler's case. Beeler's account was set to auto-pay, and she says that by the time she found out about the $824 bill, it had already been charged to her credit card.
She first called her bank to dispute the charge, and the bank issued a charge-back to the City. Next, she contacted the Public Works Department; a staffer visited her house and confirmed that the number on the meter didn't match what the contractor had reported —Beeler's actual usage was approximately 70,000 gallons less than what she'd been billed for.
But while he was there, the staffer also uncovered evidence of a leak. Each meter features a rotating triangle indicator that spins when water is in use and speeds up when more water is flowing. If the meter is spinning extremely fast, Stevens says, that indicates a possible leak.
The contractors don't typically make a note of the indicator unless it's spinning quickly, Stevens says, because it's very common for it to be spinning at low speeds if a person or appliance in the house happens to be using water at the time.
"If it's moving at a rate that's normal for usual consumption, they're not going to identify that as a leak," Stevens says. "If it's an active leak, we're going to try to let the customer know so we can get it shut down. But (in Beeler's case) we didn't have any indication that there was an active leak — there just wasn't high-enough consumption."
Beeler was home at the time the Public Works staffer stopped by. She was able to confirm that all her faucets were turned off and that she wasn't using any appliances, so her meter's triangle indicator should have been motionless. But it wasn't.
"Everything was turned off and he saw there was still some movement on the meter, and he had her go in and turn off the toilet," Stevens says. "As soon as she turned off the toilet, the meter stopped moving, so he knew that's where the leak was."
Beeler hired a plumber who diagnosed the problem: The toilet was constantly overfilling inside its tank, and the excess water was flowing into an emergency drain near the top. Since the tank wasn't overflowing, there was no obvious evidence of a leak. But as it turned out, the tank was leaking approximately 5.7 gallons of water per hour and had been doing so for an indeterminate amount of time.
At the advice of City staff, Beeler had a new "smart meter" installed on her property, which can track and record water usage on an hourly basis and send the results to the City via radio signal.
The city is planning to switch all users over to smart meters in the next few years, Stevens says, although so far only about 400 of the City's 12,500 customers have them installed. Beeler waited to have the toilet fixed until several days after the smart meter was installed.
"I wanted to compare apples to apples when I fixed the leak," she says.
With the smart meter in place, Beeler was able to get detailed data on her water usage before and after the toilet was repaired. Sure enough, her minimum hourly consumption dropped from 5.7 gallons to zero, and her overall daily consumption decreased by 61 percent.
Faced with such a large decrease, Beeler says she was left wondering why the City never notified her of the leak whenever it began. She only became aware of the leak because of the coincidental meter misread, she says — but shouldn't the City have noticed when her water usage more than doubled?
Not exactly, according to Stevens.
Individual household water usage can fluctuate substantially from month to month, he says, so the City can't always differentiate between what's a leak and what might just be someone running a sprinkler more frequently — even if the leak is quite large relative to one person's normal water use.
The 5.7 gallon-per-hour leak from the toilet works out to roughly 5.5 CCFs per month, Stevens says, which wasn't enough to push Beeler's consumption beyond its normal range.
"If you look at her consumption, if you go back looking at the past three years, she goes during the summer as high as 25 CCFs and down to 4 CCFs," he says. "So any consumption within that range, it'd be difficult for us to identify a leak."
A leak can also be tough for customers to spot based on their billing rates, because a doubling of water use doesn't translate to a doubling of the bill. Lake Oswego's water bills are an aggregation of six charges, Stevens says, most of which are fixed costs like stormwater and street maintenance.
Stevens says the City will notify customers of potential leaks if they're large enough to be obvious, but it doesn't take the role of proactively seeking them out.
"The customer is in the better position to identify these leaks," he says.
But Beeler says that explanation left her frustrated, because her own situation didn't leave her with a clear indication of what was happening. She was losing more than 4,000 gallons per month for an unknown amount of time before the coincidental meter misread incident.
"How can a homeowner fix a leak if that homeowner doesn't know they have a leak?" she says.
Her biggest question: Why can't the City keep a record of whether there was active water use during each meter read?
"I think it might be an indication of a problem if, for six months in a row, that meter reader always sees the red dial turning," she says. "He could make a note. There could be a form where it's just checking a box, yes or no. It would take one second."
Beeler's $824 bill in March did trigger a red flag in the system, Stevens says, before the City realized that it had been due to a meter misread. When a customer's consumption appears to spike by large levels, the consumer is sent a form letter notifying them to check for possible leaks.
"Typically we'll send out about 30 high-consumption letters per month — which is different than notifying people of an active leak," Stevens says. "If they find an active leak, we'll call and make contact with people. We get about a half dozen of those per month."
Frozen and burst pipes during the winter and leaking irrigation systems in the summer are some of the most common leaks that trigger high-consumption warnings, Stevens says — although sometimes the spike is just due to actual water usage, such as a customer with a large lawn turning on their irrigation system for the first time in the summer.
Beeler says she did receive a letter back in March, but she hadn't received the high bill yet and the letter only said to check for a possible leak. She did a quick check of her house, she says, but didn't hear the toilet refilling or find anything else out of the ordinary.
Resolving the billing dispute also became a headache, she says, because the City had to adjust her usage to correct the meter misread and also account for the switch to the smart meter, which uses a different billing cycle.
One thing Beeler and Stevens agree on: The whole incident makes a strong case for smart meters. But in the meantime, Beeler says, she wishes the City could find a way to measure the old meters with more precision, or to make sure consumers know that relatively small leaks can slip by under the radar.
"I care about water and take pride in the City of Lake Oswego," she says. "I think we could do a better job with a precious natural resource. That's all I'm trying to say."