By Stephen Smoot
“They’re taking away the service to the customer. I don’t see the logic behind it.”
Mayor Bob Horan referred to a recent rule change by the Public Service Commission concerning leak adjustments made by water utilities for customers experiencing major hidden leaks.
Frank Wehrle, administrator for the Town of Franklin, explained that a “hidden leak” can come from a water line leading to a house or one under the house. For many customers, “if there is a pinhole leak, they have no way to know. Sometimes it’s not even on their property and they can’t look in the meter pit. They don’t know until we tell them.”
Customers have ultimate responsibility for their bill wherever the leak occurs along the line, but can apply for an adjustment. Since at least 2018, the Town of Franklin policy, once the leak was identified, customers could get an adjustment. The town water utility would estimate a 12-month average regardless of how much the overage during the leak was and waive the excess charges. This was for hidden leaks only, not leaks from lines in the house, damaged water heaters or toilets, etc.
The West Virginia Public Service Commission, however, took away any utility’s ability to be flexible in dealing with such cases. A new rule sets a minimum threshold before the utility can grant relief, saying “where the bill reflects unusual usage in excess of 200% of the customer’s historical usage that can be attributed to leakage on the customer’s side of the meter the utility will adjust the bill.” This means that the customer must see a doubling of their normal bill before the utility can help.
Wehrle explained that the rule’s use of the word “shall” constitutes a mandate on the local utility, tying their hands in an effort to provide relief if they choose to. He added that “this rule applies for all water authorities in the state, including our public service districts.”
“Say, the average bill is 3,000 gallons and they have 5,000 usage. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t adjust it anymore,” Wehrle said.
The threshold after which relief can be granted is the only change to Franklin’s water policy. It still requires that the adjustment only be made on leaks considered hidden.
One serious potential problem comes during periods of bad or extreme weather. If there is heavy snow, bitter cold temperatures, or other obstacles, utilities will estimate water usage rather than check a meter. Only when the meter is directly checked can the utility determine if there is a possible leak. As Wehrle states, “a customer could go for four months before anyone knows about it. Also, customers cannot access their own meters.
Wehrle states that the new rule will save money for the town on leak adjustments, but at the cost of providing proper customer service. He said, “It does a disservice to our customers.” Facilities such as the nursing home, the senior center, and many businesses could find themselves in serious trouble since they already have large scale use.
“A lot of the rules are set up for medium to large utilities,” Wehrle shared, then added, “it’s fine for them because they have manpower and infrastructure involved. For smaller utilities, it hurts.”
“The people sitting in offices making the rules don’t understand how it affects small communities,” Horan concluded.