Mailbox: That R89 000 water bill. Here’s how you can avoid Alec Hogg’s pain

(Duncan Alfreds, News24)
(Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The story of my R89 000 water bill hit a nerve among members of the Biznews community. Dozens of them, judging by the flood of emails from people who had similar experiences, experts in fixing these issues, quite a few politicians and even a fellow journalist (thanks Claire) who has some great advice. I was particularly impressed to receive an email from the Joburg Ombudsman literally minutes after Thursday’s newsletter started hitting inboxes. To everyone who kindly answered my plea for help, please forgive the lack of response – I now know why those famous people employ full-time letter answers. Promise to provide updates on progress. However, as this is obviously an issue that affects many, some of the replies have been shared under the newsletter posting and are supplementing this with the rather detailed response, published below, from a professional. He doesn’t mention it, but a number of those who did get things fixed used the good offices of their local city councillor. Which shows the value of being able to access someone who lives nearby, you actually know exists and possibly voted for. Not like at the national level where the system of proportional representation means Parliament is full of people reliant on the pleasure of the party bosses, without any direct responsibility to those who put them into power. The Codesa crew who devised and forced through so obvious a blight on “democracy” clearly didn’t consider the unintended consequences we’re now having to stomach. – Alec Hogg.

From Hugo Venter of Municipal Account Rectifiers:

I read your article on the problem with your water account. We are COJ Account consultants and can give you the following guidelines:

1. You are, as a standard rule, liable for the water running through your meter. It is therefore imperative, if there is a leak, that you address it as soon as possible.

2. When you are confronted with a high bill for water usage after a meter change, you must do the following:

 1. Determine the date of the water meter change.

 2. Take the account before the meter change and look at the following:

Look at the water meter number and the reading. Check if the meter was billed on estimate or on actual readings.

If it is on actual reading, you know that that account had a fixed end reading. If the account is on estimated readings, you must realise that the meter was not recording consumption, or was inaccessible. A provision must then be made for the actual reading (when they uncovered it) or estimated readings (based on daily average consumption) for the period that the meter stood still.

3. The best way to determine what the closure readings were on the old meter, the date of removal and the reason for removal, is to request a jobcard of the meter change from Joburg Water.

4. It must be remembered that leaks occur when meters are replaced. This is because pipes become brittle. Over time and, with the meter which may be rusted onto the pipes, the push and pull of the pipes may create leaks. Owners of properties should, especially after meter changes are done, check that there are no leaks.

5. One may have the perception that Joburg Water’s contractors, when they install a new meter, would check that there is no leak. Unfortunately, they do not do it.  Even if a water connection on an empty warehouse is connected, they will leave the premises, even if taps are open. They also do not favour the owner with a copy of the jobcard, nor a letter of information and warning to check for leaks. If there is a leak due to their meter change, then they must carry part of the loss.

6. The next question relates to leaks. I have the following procedure:

When everybody has left, go to the meter and, when there should be no water consumption, see if the meter is running. If it is – then there is a leak. Take a photo. After an hour, take a further photo.  If the meter has moved, then you know that there is a leak.

Regarding the meter –

Check if the meter number is correct on the statement. Also check the reading. Take daily readings – morning and evening - to build up a user profile.

Then – if the meter stands still – take a 20 litre can. Take a proper reading. Fill it up 5 times to use 100 litres. If the fourth red dial moved more than 1 notch and the last 3 dials are not the same as they were before you started to draw water – you know that the meter must be tested.

7. The council has a Constitutional obligation to keep proper records. Part of it is that they must bill you on the correct meter (not on estimates on a removed meter). They must load the change of meter on your statement within a reasonable time. I had a pensioner who never knew that her water meter was replaced. A year and a half later she received an account for R85 000,00. If she had received a statement 3 months after the meter change, and saw that the usage had spiralled, she would have repaired the leak. That matter of failure with the Constitutional obligation and the allocation of responsibility and loss were referred to the COJ Ombudsman in September 2015, but the matter was not dealt with by him.

8. A last word of advice. When your plumber repairs the leak, ask him to take photos of the pipe and the connections where the leak was. If it is a galvanised pipe with a hole in – then you must deal with the account. If the pipes are removed from each other, and there was no previous history of high usage, then you must deal therewith with a firmer stance.

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