GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — Frank Pettey’s water bill is on auto pay.

Recently he said he had to do a double take when his wife told him they had been billed $1,272.24 for utilities.

“My ears went up very quickly,” Pettey said. “And I said ‘let me look into that.'”

The former accountant discovered that they were billed for 253,000 gallons of water during their July statement, which also included their electric use.

“Knowing that that was impossible, I started calling the Georgetown utilities. The person who answered the phone first told me well, you must have a leak. And I said no, if I had a leak that big my house would be floating. I said, something else is wrong,” Pettey explained. 

Pettey, who lives in Sun City, a Georgetown subdivision, said he normally uses 12,000 to 14,000 gallons a month.

“That would be like swimming pools of water flowing down the street,” Pettey said.” And my house would have been floating with it.”

Pandemic delays 

Georgetown Utility Systems explained that there was a problem with the automated meter reader, and Pettey was among 1,600 customers whose transmitter failed. 

The transmitter sends the utility usage details electronically. The utility has 56,000 water customers. 

The transmitter is on the left. The meter is on the right. (Courtesy: City of Georgetown Utilities)

“The meter is working fine,” said Leticia Zavala Jones, the customer care director with the city of Georgetown. “We’re just not getting the read electronically. And because we don’t have meter readers on staff, per se, because we’re all automated, and we get our reads electronically, we can’t get out through 470 square miles in a really fast turnaround time.”

She added that the transmitter can fail because it’s outside in the elements.

The city said because of the pandemic and supply chain issues there was a delay in getting a shipment of new transmitters, and it has received sporadic inventory from the vendor since 2021. 

“City of Georgetown experiences about 100 new module failures a month, which is similar to other water utilities. The supply chain shortages have impacted our ability to replace these failed components on a timely basis,” explained Aly Van Dyke, the city’s director of communications and public engagement.

Backbilling water usage 

In Pettey’s case, the city said his particular one failed over a year ago.

“What that means is that we’ll either estimate your bill if we don’t get a good read and then do a work order to send one of the crews to go out and actually read your meter, so that we can get a good read—good visual read,” said Zavala Jones. 

If the estimate is too high once everything syncs back up, then customers will get a refund. If the estimate is too low, then the customer will be backbilled for usage. 

The city says it aligns practices with the Public Utility Commission of Texas which says, “If the customer was undercharged, the utility may backbill the customer for the amount that was underbilled. The backbilling may not exceed 12 months.” 

Pettey was billed for six months of usage. 

“So when we actually replaced his component, what it does is it gives us a brand-new visual reading. And then the billing system looks at the two, like the last read that we had gotten from him, and now the current rate that we have, and figures out how many gallons went through the meter that we hadn’t billed him, and it bills him for that,” said Zavala Jones.

Conservation measures

The city explained that it received a large shipment of the transmitters in late June. Work orders are in for all the impacted homeowners and the transmitters will be replaced by fall, if not sooner. 

The utility explained that there are conservation measures that could also help customers with higher bills if the transmitter issue is not the problem. 

The city said a good place to check is your sprinkler system, especially if there’s been any kind of outage overnight which can reset the system. 

Leaky toilets can be another problem that may be contributing to higher bills. The city added that it has been a hotter summer than in previous years so that could be a factor as well. 

“We have not seen an unusual increase in calls to Customer Care about large bills, and of the calls we have received, the vast majority of them have been the result of increased water usage,” Van Dyke explained.

She encouraged homeowners to reach out to Customer Care at customercare@georgetown.org or 512-930-3640 if they notice a discrepancy in their bill, so the utility can help figure out the cause and options to resolve it.

She explained that the city also has conservation rebates and can authorize up to $600 a year for things including irrigation checks and upgrading the irrigation system’s efficiency.

Warning for others 

The City of Georgetown Utilities said transmitters can fail due to being outside in the elements. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Pettey said after he raised concerns including to city council his water meter and the transmitter were replaced and his bill fixed. 

He explained that he provided proof of previous usage and insisted on talking with a supervisor to understand the problem.

“We calculated what his average usage would have been each month and multiplied the amount by six months to get the prorated amount,” Van Dyke said.

Pettey added that he ended up paying for some extra water but not $1,272.24.

“Everybody I speak to about this, I tell them, check your bills, go on their website, using your account number found on on the front of your bill, and see what your historical usage is. See if there is a point where you’re metered did not transmit somehow,” Pettey said.