An exclusive News 5 Investigation reveals a critical installation error can lead nearly 400,000 recently installed "smart meters" to provide inaccurate bills affecting Cleveland Division of Water customers in 79 surrounding communities.
In addition, Cleveland water officials have been aware of potential billing errors associated with "smart meters" but routinely failed to inform customers who have complained about skyrocketing water bills.
Water customer bills can be sent inaccurate bills when new "smart meters", that electronically record water usage data that is translated into bills, are incorrectly programmed when first installed.
The programming error can occur when installers fail to properly locate a critical decimal point used to calculate water usage.
For example, if the decimal point is moved just one place, it can result in water customers allegedly using ten times as much water as they actually used, resulting in skyrocketing water bills.
For example, the average family of four used 400 gallons of water a day.
But if a "smart meter" is programmed incorrectly, it would indicate that the same family used 4,000 gallons a day.
A Cleveland area water customer discovered his water meter was programmed inaccurately after complaining to the Cleveland Division of Water about increased bills for more than two years.
The water department assured him there was no problem, never mentioned possible programming errors, and threatened him with disconnection.
The customer independently located the installer who verified that his meter not programmed correctly and the excessive charges were removed from his bill--with no explanation from the Cleveland Division of Water.
The Cleveland Division of Water relies on a number of subcontractors who have performed the "smart meter" installations since 2012.
Our News 5 Investigation found problems associated with proper meter installation are well documented — including in a report by Itron — a well-respected global technology company that supports 8,000 utilities around the world.
Itron is also the company Cleveland hired to oversee deployment of its "smart meter" program and has relied on sub-contractors to actually perform the installation.
In its report, "Factors for Water Billing Accuracy", Itron warns that "many errors can occur during installation that can cause an inaccurate meter read".
Plus, a highly respected water industry expert has found "if it happens on a widespread basis, the utility is going be inundated with extraordinarily high bills".
Thomas Kelly chairs the Water Meter Standards Committee for the American Water Works Association — the nation's leading association representing water companies nationwide.
Kelly warns that when "smart meters" are used "installation is absolutely critical".
Records obtained by News 5 reveal the Cleveland Division of Water has repaired or replaced at least 3,469 "smart meters" over the last four years since the program began.
Additional records show more than 72,000 water customer billing complaints for the same time period.
The water department declined an interview, but in a statement said it has found only 9 meters that required re-programming and instead blamed the majority of malfunctions on "extreme cold, disconnected cables and illegal tampering".
Itron's also insists programming errors are not widespread and in most cases, result in showing less water is being used--not more.
In addition, Itron's report finds "the vast majority (almost 99 percent)" of devices returned for failures "exhibit symptoms that do not result in an incorrect reading being sent to the utility."
While the Cleveland Division of Water declined to discuss billing errors, it is encouraging water customers to immediately call its Customer Service Department at 216-664-3130 to discuss your bill.