AUSTIN (KXAN) – Following a KXAN investigation in September showing customers’ concerns of suspected overbilling with Austin Water’s new smart meters, the director of Austin Water is defending the digital meters’ accuracy and how the agency collects and responds to complaints.
“It’s a big city and a big job but we have a lot of professionals here who are committed to excellent customer service,” Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson told KXAN Investigator Mike Rush.
Even so, more customers reached out to KXAN after our initial investigation with similar concerns.
Kimi, who did not want to disclose her last name, is one of them. The Northwest Hills resident said, ever since her analog water meter was replaced with a digital meter, “This water usage is just way out of whack.”
She said she noticed a big increase based on the meter readings Austin Water sent her.
“For maybe 10, 12 hours at a time there’d be zero and then there were days where for an eight-hour stretch it would go up to 220,” Kimi said of the gallons the meter indicated she used in an hour. “There’s nothing that I do that has that kind of high-water usage.”
In September, KXAN spoke with Gabriela Olivares in north Austin, who said her water bills shot up after the smart meter was installed.
“It shows 139 gallons was used on Mother’s Day. I wasn’t here,” Olivares said at the time.
“Because I live in a condominium, I immediately thought about my neighbor because I thought, well, maybe they crossed the lines or something,” she said.
According to an email chain between Olivares and Austin Water, that’s exactly what happened. But Olivares said it took her repeated complaints, several weeks and three visits before a crew figured it out. An Austin Water spokesperson said they are aware of 17 “crossed-wire” occurrences since the installation process began.
“It’s very frustrating because that was something that they could have checked from the very beginning,” she said at the time.
“Oh, I absolutely sympathize with that frustration. I share their frustration. We want to resolve those issues on the first try,” Roalson said regarding the frustrations highlighted in the KXAN investigation.
While the agency refused our request for an on-camera interview for our first story, after it aired and KXAN asked the city manager for a comment on our findings, Austin Water instead responded offering an interview with Roalson.
Austin Water is replacing 250,000 analog meters throughout the city with smart meters by 2025. So far, it’s installed more than 185,000.
“It’s been a real game changer,” Roalson said.
Because the digital system, she said, gives customers information like water usage in near real-time and warnings about possible leaks.
Although Roalson said there hasn’t been an uptick in overall billing complaints since the conversion started in 2021, Austin Water is not able to say how many customers have complained specifically about suspected false readings from the new meters. That’s because, as our original investigation revealed, the agency does not have a centralized, easily accessible way to get that number.
“But in terms of making sure that we are addressing customer complaints and following it through to completion,” Roalson said, “our systems are very robust in that way.”
Roalson said meter testing before installation, quality control checks after and simultaneous manual and electronic reads conducted through the first two billing cycles help ensure accuracy.
“We’re committed to sticking with it. The ones that you highlighted to us. The customers that have reached out to us directly,” she said.
Kimi reached out to Austin Water directly but said her issue is far from resolved.
“Now we’re kind of at an impasse,” she said.
She hired a plumber, whose invoice showed she did not have leaks and said Austin Water came out twice but determined her meter is working properly.
“They kept on insisting that it had to be a leak,” she said.
Kimi said she’s concerned the digital system can be hacked. An Austin Water spokesperson said the system is secure from hacking because data is transmitted by radio frequency and is encrypted and anonymous.
For customers with concerns about their readings, the director encourages them to keep lodging complaints. She said they’re committed to getting it right.
After Investigator Mike Rush asked again, a spokesperson for Interim Assistant City Manager Robert Goode sent a statement on his behalf responding to our findings. It reads:
The City of Austin is committed to providing outstanding service to our customers and we have multiple ways for Austin Water customers to reach out with any issues or concerns. Residents have provided largely positive feedback about the tools the smart meter portal provides, and we have robust systems for tracking and monitoring our customer touchpoints and work quickly to identify, respond and resolve any issues that arise.”Interim Assistant City Manager Robert Goode
KXAN Investigates reached out to Badger, the manufacturer of the digital meters, and Aclara SGS, the company Austin Water hired to install customer meters. Aclara did not respond to our request for a comment on our findings.
In a statement, a Badger spokesperson wrote:
Badger Meter cannot comment on any specific customer account. Please direct your questions to the utility.