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Watering Hole

Apologies for the lapse in posting. Shortly after my Windows 7 installation, I fell into a tremendous task load — both at my day job and otherwise — which included a few up-till-midnight work evenings, working over the weekend, and the usual accompaniments. I’ve also been doing a fair amount of troubleshooting for friends and family, including the failure of my buddy Pooch’s video card, some issues with my dad’s new laptop, and the installation of new RAM modules in my grandfather’s desktop PC.

So yeah, I’ve been busy. Is there ever any other explanation when dust starts gathering around here?

I’m happy to report, at least, that all the jobs and tasks in which I’ve participated have worked out quite well. By comparison, this week has been positively relaxing, which of course I’ve enjoyed as it’s given me time to work on some important personal projects and even try a new video game or two. (Shadow Complex, by the way, is simply divine.) Apple and I, in particular, have both been mightily obsessed with one of those casual time-management games from PlayFirst Software — y’know, the kind of embarrassing ones that you’re afraid to admit you play to your Gears of War and Halo loving buddies, but which are addictive to the point where you need a chemical intervention to stop playing.

Anyway, the topic for today’s entry fell into my lap yesterday when we got our most recent water bill from the county utilities office, and it had completely skyrocketed far beyond the realm of believability. Normally we use anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water a month, for which we pay around $60. This month, however, our statement indicated usage of 12,000 gallons, and a $130 charge to match. We even got dinged with a surtax for excessive consumption during Phase II Water Restrictions (which, incidentally, I’m sure will never, ever be lifted again, since the county needs to make money.)

Neither one of us has changed our water consumption habits — certainly not enough to account for a threefold increase in reported usage — so I figured something had to be bogus. When I called the water company, they asked whether I’d done a laundry list of things that would have accounted for the usage, my response to all of which was a resounding no. (“Did you fill your pool?” the lady asked. “We don’t even have a pool,” I replied.) Their only other idea was that it could be a leak, so they suggested I read the meter, turn all the water off and then read it again in four hours to see if it had changed.

When I looked at our meter (which took some work to find, incidentally, before I eventually located it under a plate in the middle of the front yard), I saw it was a pretty fancy digital contraption with an LCD screen and a wireless RF transmitter for reporting data back to the Arch-Overlords of the County. It also threw me for a loop, because the consumption reading was 0.92, which — on the assumption the meter is x1000 — meant a usage of only 920 gallons had been recorded. Aren’t water meters supposed to be like the odometer on your car, in that they never reset?

Anyway, I performed the leak test, and came up empty — the consumption figure was still 0.92 when I checked at the end of the day. The meter also has a real-time flow rate counter, which read 0.00 the entire time. There’s nothing leaking in here (or out there).

The water meter
The water meter (showing zero flow rate)

During my investigations, I took some pictures of the meter with my phone (love that macro capability in the iPhone 3GS) and only later noticed that there was a sticker on the meter with the numbers 12-08 printed on it. If that was a date, it suggested that the meter had either been manufactured or installed quite recently, an event I’d heard nothing about. What’s up with that? I went across the street and took a look at our neighbor’s meter with his permission, and he had the original-style odometer type meter reading in excess of 64,000 accumulated gallons. When had our meter reset, and why? It was practically turning into a Holmesian mystery, this crap.

Armed with the knowledge that there was no Niagara Falls-sized leak blowing through 8,000 gallons of unaccounted-for water per month, I called back the water company this morning and restated my case. I also mentioned that the reading was quite low and asked if the meter had been replaced recently. The guy looked up our account and saw that our meter had failed and was replaced with that new one just one week ago. (I never saw this happen. Did they do it in the middle of the night?) Well, that certainly explained the low consumption reading. But because no leak was indicated and I could not account for the use of that much water, the guy had no explanation for why our bill would have been so high.

In fact, the customer service rep’s only suggestion was that our old meter might have thrown erroneous readings while it was in the process of failing. He then said something like: “According to the work order, your meter stopped responding,” he said, “and when that happens, they come out and take a reading off the top, and sometimes the reading can be wrong if the meter slowed down right before it failed.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but it shoots straight to my suspicion that the previous faulty meter issued a data aberration which then showed up as mega-consumption on my bill.

I had to laugh, because the guy on the phone was pretty much all shrug-and-ho-hum when I mentioned exactly this. His opinion was that the new meter’s readings were in line with normal consumption and that the stratospheric charge probably wouldn’t happen again. So, wait — I’m supposed to just eat the $130 that flew out of my wallet this month, even though he admitted that our meter crapped out at the tail end of that billing cycle? I eventually got him to tell me that I could write a letter to the utility reporting an “unexplained water loss,” so that’s what I proceeded to do. It’s in the mail as of now.

At least I’ve learned a few things from this experience so far, specifically:

  • Where our water meter is located.
  • How to read the meter.
  • The importance of reading the meter regularly so that I have empirical data in my favor should this ever happen again, or advanced warning if we actually develop a leak or are using more water than we expect.

Now I suppose I’ll give the water department about a week, then call them and see if I can get someone to cop to receiving my letter. This all presumes that they won’t actually be proactive and either call or write back to me as I requested (after reducing the charge for this month, which I also requested). Because expecting to receive what you asked for on the first try when you’re dealing with a government agency is really just asking to be disappointed. And of course, since our old meter failed, there’s no longer any data in my possession to indicate whether I’m right or wrong.

Naturally, I’ll post any follow-ups to this situation if and when I get them. Because I know you’re all just dying to know how it turns out, aren’t you, Watson?

Well, go read some Doyle, then.