Meter Reader Woes: Are ‘smart meters’ behind water bill increases in La Jolla?

Although an audit of the San Diego Public Utilities’ Department (PUD) is ongoing to find the source of a recent spike in water bills, one question is raising eyebrows: Are the City’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and its “smart meters” part of the problem?

Over the last two months, La Jolla residents have been meeting to discuss unexplained increases in their water bills. At one meeting, some shared that they had a smart meter, but did not know when it was installed and so could not correlate it to the bill increases. At previous meetings, one resident said he was told by a PUD employee that the former (analog) meters were “more reliable.”

On the subject, the City’s website states: “The Public Utilities Department (PUD) began installing smart meters in March 2014, as part of an effort to update our systems and provide new benefits to our customers.” A full roll-out is expected by 2020. The AMI system “uses a radio network to transmit customer usage data allowing electronic reading and eliminating the need for visual inspection.”

Notices were sent by mail to those who received the new meters. Those with the system can access their water use online and view daily detailed water use information captured from the previous day, by visiting and selecting the account, clicking on the “consumption history” tab, and proceeding to the “Click to view detailed consumption history” link.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that deputy PUD director Michael Vogl dismissed the idea that water bill increases were linked to the AMI system, stating that close to 90,000 of the City’s 285,000 water meters have been replaced with the new technology. About 15,000 of those are being read remotely.

City representatives did not return La Jolla Light’s inquiry by deadline as to how many of these smart meters are operating in La Jolla and when the La Jolla installation project would be complete.

Fields of folly

Muirlands-area resident Tom Pastore said he questions whether the digital readings could be influenced by WiFi interference, Bluetooth technology and/or hackers. “My belief is that there could be a problem with remote reading, using WiFi to read the meters at a central location,” he said. Pastore has a master’s degree in physics and electronic engineering, and spent 15 years at General Dynamics. “I think there is the possibility of ElectroMagnetic Interference (EMI), also called Radio Frequency Interference (RFI), and because it is a small meter, I assume it may not have been thoroughly tested to reject (outside) signals. I’d like someone to tell me how exhaustive the testing was against this happening.”

Features that emit possible interference include Internet hotspots, television towers, cell phone signal towers, cell phone use and more, Pastore explained. “I know there’s a lot of RFI that surrounds us here and all over town,” he said. “What’s to prevent these devices from causing interference and influencing the meter readings?”

Ramona resident and director of the Center for Electrosmog Prevention, Susan Brinchman, said she has researched smart meters in general after getting a SDG&E smart meter installed on her La Mesa property. When the electric smart meter was installed, she said, she experienced health effects she believed were from the increase in radiation created by the new meters (prompting her move to Ramona). She began researching smart meters, both electric and water, and found a pattern of increases in bills and increases in radiation following their installation.

“I thought it was very likely that smart water meters were behind the very high increases in water bills,” she told La Jolla Light. (Some La Jollans have seen their bills jump from $300 to $3,000 within months.) Brinchman said she was granted an “opt-out” option by SDG&E, based on her sensitivity to radiation. She printed a sign saying she did not give consent to have her water meter replaced with a smart meter, and placed it over her existing water meter. Thus far, the Ramona Municipal Water District has honored it.

“They should drop the program entirely and can replace it with new analog meters,” she suggested.

City: Oops, our bad

The San Diego PUD conducted an internal review of increased water bill complaints, and found that 343 meters had been misread, it announced last week. However, none of these misread meters were smart meters, and none in the City report were located in La Jolla. The cause of the misreading has been identified as “human error.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said of the review: “Every bill must be accurate and anything less is unacceptable. San Diegans need to be able to trust that their bills are correct, and that every cent they pay goes to making sure we have safe, reliable water. I have directed staff to take the necessary steps to ensure that nobody pays more than they should, meters are properly read, and any mistakes are corrected immediately.”

Following the internal review, the City announced, via a press release, that it will implement six actions to provide better oversight and ensure the accuracy of water bills, including: 1) requiring PUD supervisors to personally sign off on daily reports from meter readers; 2) adding security protocols to ensure that only designated staff have ability to input data; 3) improving automated alerts that flag unusual spikes in water usage; 4) adding a second spot check review of meter reads to ensure accuracy; 5) participating in the independent City Auditor’s audit of customer billing issues; 6) including an informational insert in water bills on how customers can read their own meters and track their water use.

The review also found there were other factors that have contributed to higher water: “most notably, a citywide rate increase of 6.9 percent that the City Council approved in 2015 and took effect August 2017, and leaks in homes and irrigation systems, warmer temperature and dry conditions leading to increased water use, and new landscaping or pool installations.”

When broached by La Jollans, who reported seeing excessive water use on their bills and being charged accordingly, the common PUD response was that there must have been a leak somewhere.

Following the outcry, City Council President Pro Tem and La Jolla resident Barbara Bry called for an audit of the water department, and said she expects to see the results in June. She also called for a change in PUD practice for those who contest their water bills, giving them more time to settle the disagreement.

To contact the City with questions: Call (619) 515-3500 or e-mail

Next La Jolla water bill meeting: (for locals who believe they’ve been unfairly charged exorbitant amounts) 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21 at La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.

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