Faulty equipment leads to huge water bills in Santa Fe

SANTA FE (KRQE) – Jeff Dieringer opened his water bill in January and got quite the shock.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Dieringer told KRQE News 13.

The bill said he owed $4,500.

That seemed impossible, because his Santa Fe house was xeriscaped after he pulled out the grass years ago.

“We have the highest (water) rates in the country,” Dieringer said. “I had to.”

The city admits that Dieringer’s jaw-dropping bill was the result of a mistake. Still, city officials threatened to shut off his water if he didn’t pay up.

The City of Santa Fe Water Department staff suspected a leak, but after more research they found the culprit: a device called a firefly. It’s a radio controlled system that allows employees to drive by and collect water meter readings without leaving their truck.

It turns out Dieringer’s firefly malfunctioned and was under-reading his usage for years. He said he’s been paying more than $100 a month for water, even in the winter. He never noticed a discrepancy in his bills — or that he was being under-charged.

“It wasn’t like we were getting $30-a-month water bills,” Dieringer said. “We’re getting what I thought was regular bills.”

After a nearly two-month fight with the water department, Dieringer said his $4,500 water bill dropped to $1,600, then to $1,200. The city told him he had until March 28 to pay it, or staff would shut off his water.

He paid it the day before.

But Dieringer is not alone in this situation. The city admits there are other customers with firefly devices under-reading their water meters.

Nicholas Schiavo, the Public Utilities and Water Division Director, says the city purchased 3,700 firefly units starting in 2004. A few years later the devices started having problems.

“The data wasn’t being pulsed into the truck and so they would stop to find out what was going on, find out that the battery was dead and remove it,” Schiavo said. “And initially the company that sold us the meters was taking them back and sending us repaired ones.”

The city said it sent back 1,000 firefly devices to the manufacturer, Datamatic, for repair. Santa Fe still has 20,000 of the radio-controlled firefly devices at homes and businesses.

The city may be stuck with those devices, because Datamatic filed for bankruptcy in 2012 just after the city filed a lawsuit to recoup its money for the faulty devices.

The city sees the devices failing weekly.

“We’re seeing between 20 and 50 a week,” Schiavo said.

He says most failures are associated with battery failures.

But there are a few other firefly devices that are misreading the water meters. And they’re creating shocking bills like the one Dieringer received.

“Why aren’t they fixing them, why aren’t they pulling them out, why aren’t they getting meter readers to fix them, or get another company?” Dieringer said.

Schiavo said he looked at reusing the city’s old handheld water meter readers. But the batteries are all dead and would have to be replaced.

He instead believes he will find another company to supply the city with new remote reader devices and the software they use. He plans to ask the City Council for the money this fall.

The firefly devices, meanwhile, will stay in place. Employees will personally read the water meters where the firefly malfunctions or fails. But they don’t have the staff to hand read every meter.

“Because of attrition, we’ve let some people go,” Schiavo said.

For questions about your Santa Fe water bill of to report a leak please call (505) 955-4333.

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