DeKalb upgrades water meters to help fix billing issues

Confronted by residents' complaints about sharp increases in their water bills, DeKalb is speeding up plans to install water meters that will wirelessly transmit consumption information from every household in the county.

The new meters will prevent inaccuracies that come when government employees physically examine most of DeKalb’s 180,000 residential meters every other month.

The smart meters are the centerpiece of the county’s effort to reduce the number of homeowners who receive unexpectedly high bills, in some cases exceeding $1,000. DeKalb officials outlined their strategy during a presentation to the county commission Tuesday.

Once the meters are installed, the county will be able to remotely view water flows to individual residences, and customers will be billed monthly instead of every other month. A $4 fee to pay bills online will be eliminated as well when DeKalb switches to a new water billing website next year.

"This will help us because with more accurate meters, we'll know the water usage," said DeKalb Department of Watershed Management Director Scott Towler. "It's fairer. If one person is cheating the system and another is not, we're all paying for it."

DeKalb plans to install 40,000 smart meters, called iPerl meters, annually over the next three or four years until all of the county’s customers have one. Previously, DeKalb had been installing 12,000 new meters per year. Only about 20,000 residents currently have the wireless meters.

The county approved a $6 million contract last month for meters and parts, and the water meter replacement program’s total cost is about $30 million.

Besides better measuring water usage, the county also will work to improve customer service, said Antrameka Knight, who oversees DeKalb's water billing.

Field service teams will work more closely with customer service representatives to help resolve problems, and representatives will go through a refresher training course, she said.

“Does that include how to be nice to people?” asked Commissioner Kathie Gannon. “We still have some very visible, very loud people who feel like they aren’t being heard.”

Knight said a significant part of training will focus on customer interactions and other soft skills.

Most spikes in bills are caused by customers’ increased water usage, according to audits last year and this year. Lawn sprinklers in particular can cause bills to rise significantly.

DeKalb was culpable for dramatic bill increases 13 percent of the time for reasons including meter reading errors, meter malfunctions and stopped meters, said last year’s audit.

DeKalb’s goal for next year is to have less than 10 percent of billing problems attributed to the county, Knight said.

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