Faulty water meters leak town's revenue Manchester bills less than it pumps NORTH--Manchester * Hampstead * Lineboro

December 23, 1992|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

Manchester is throwing money down the drain.

The town's water meters are wearing out, causing them to under-estimate the amount of water some customers are using, said Steven Miller, the town's water and wastewater superintendent.

That means water users are being under-billed, and the town is losing tens of thousands of dollars in uncollected water and sewer charges.

Recently, water and waste water department figures show, the town has only been billing for about 78 percent of the water it has pumped.

Mr. Miller estimated that between 250 and 300 of the town's 935 water meters are malfunctioning and producing readings that unfairly favor the customers.

Some of Manchester's water meters are 26 years old, Mr. Miller said, but their normal life expectancy is only 10 to 12 years.

Earlier this month, town employees replaced 16 of the oldest water meters. Mr. Miller tested the old ones and estimated that each of them had cost the town about $100 a year in water charges.

The true cost to the town multiplies because sewer charges are based on water use, he said. A household's sewer charge is 2.6 times its water charge. So, if a faulty meter is missing $100 worth of water a year, the town is also losing out on a $260 in sewer charges, for a total of $360 in lost revenue.

If 300 water meters are each costing the town $360 a year, the total loss to the town could be as high as $108,000 a year.

"You can see that we need to get ourselves on a meter-replacement program," Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Miller said he sent the 16 old water meters to a laboratory in Hanover, Pa., for more extensive testing. The laboratory reported last week that 14 of them under-measured water flow, one worked correctly, and one was broken and could not be tested.

Under low-flow conditions -- which Mr. Miller said are roughly comparable to the flow produced by running water in a bathroom sink -- four of the tested meters registered no flow at all.

Michael Stielper, a member of the town's ad-hoc committee on water and sewers, said the meters that were tested were among the oldest in town, and they may not provide a representative sample of how the rest of Manchester's water meters are working.

Town Manager Terry Short said that the actual cost to the town of lost billings may be less than $108,000, although "the likelihood is fairly high" that as many as 300 meters are malfunctioning.

One reason is that the older, malfunctioning meters may be in older homes owned by older people. Older people tend to use less water than others, Mr. Short said.

And, because Manchester water users get as much as 5,000 gallons of water a quarter for a flat fee, some users' water bills may not rise even if their metered water use increases.

In the three-month period from March to May of this year, Mr. Miller said, the town pumped 259,861 gallons of water per day, but only billed for 185,967 gallons per day. That means 28 percent of the water used was not billed.

In the three-month period from June to August, 19 percent of the water used was not billed, Mr. Miller said.

Even water meters that work

well can come up as much as 10 percent short, he said. A water system always loses some water through nonmetered outlets, such as leaks and use by the fire department to fight fires. But, he said, the amount lost by Manchester's meters is about 22 percent.

Mr. Miller said it costs about $125 to replace a water meter, including labor. He said it is "far cheaper" to replace a water meter than to try to repair one.

Mr. Miller said he thinks the town should consider a program to replace 125 water meters annually. Each meter could be replaced after ten years, as it reaches the end of its working life.

It would cost about $15,625 to replace the 125 water meters. But the town might save several times that much by accurately billing its water customers, he said.

The money to replace aging water meters probably would come from the town's water fund, said Mr. Stielper, and water rates may rise to pay for new water meters.

But, Mr. Short said, if accurate billing would bring in another $90,000 or more to town coffers, the town's water billing rate may actually drop.

Mr. Stielper said he thinks the town council would approve a meter-replacement program.

"I think if you put it in black and white, that they're losing this much money, they'll go for it," he said.

Mr. Miller said, "As time goes on, with age, if we don't switch over to a replacement program, it's not fair to anybody."

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