Make sure your municipal water account is correct

Municipalities have a responsibility to provide clean, safe water to residents, and the authority to set tariff bands that increase with the amount consumed. In other words, the more water you use in a month, the more expensive each kilolitre becomes. With inflation pushing up the cost of living in general, most of us have seen our water tariffs increase too.

In one way, the rising cost of water can have a positive effect - encouraging us to use water more mindfully, with as little waste as possible in a water-scarce country. But even if you’re doing the right thing and reducing your water use, you still want to make sure you’re getting what you pay for. This is simple enough if you commit to some routine paperwork. Check that your municipal water bill is accurate and file it away every month, so that you have the records in the event of a dispute.

Some common billing problems for water

1. Incorrect meter being read This is often the case in subdivided properties, if the subdivided portions are sold before the obligatory meters are installed. When meters are added later, it may not be obvious which meter serves which subdivision. If you live in such a development, make sure you know which meter serves your property and that the correct meter number appears on your bill.

2. Time between the reading of meters To make sure you’re being billed for one month’s usage only, municipal officials should read residential property meters once a month. But in the face of capacity challenges, many municipalities end up estimating consumption for several months in a row. If the month they are using as your average for their estimate was in fact a month of unusually high consumption, you may be charged for more water than you’ve actually used. If you’re billed on estimated usage for more than 3 months in a row, ask for an actual meter reading to be taken before your next bill.

3. Readings for more than a month There have been cases in which meter readings were not taken at 30-day intervals, and households have received bills in which 6 or 7 weeks of consumption were billed as a single month. Obviously, this increases the total ‘monthly’ consumption, forcing the consumer to pay higher tariffs on the ‘excessive’ water used. If you receive a water bill based on meter readings more than 31 days apart, query it.

4. Inaccurate accounting A glitch in the billing software settings could be inflating your water bill. There have been instances of bills with the ‘current amount owed’ figure being listed in the ‘30 days’ slot on the computerised account, with the ‘30 days’ amount owed shifted to ‘60 days’, and so on. This means the customer is already being charged interest on an amount owed before the due date and is paying more interest than they should on arrears. If you notice this error on your bill, query it.

You could try contacting your municipal ward councillor for help


5. Outdated meters and human error The oldest meters have 5 clock-face dials that are difficult to read accurately, so the wrong figures may be recorded. Through lack of training or carelessness, human error is also a factor – sometimes, meter readers just make honest mistakes. It makes sense to learn how to read your own meter and take a picture of the reading once a month to keep track of your water consumption.

How to ensure that your bill is correct

First, make sure you know where your meter is located and that it’s the correct meter for your property. Turn off your water at the main stopcock and monitor the meter over 15 or 20 minutes. The numbers shouldn’t change – although a small change over 20 minutes could indicate a slow leak somewhere between your meter and the stopcock, which you should get checked by a plumber.

After 20 minutes, open the stopcock and run some water from a tap on the property. If the dials on the meter begin moving, you know you have the correct meter. If the meter indicates rapid use even when your stopcock is closed, it may be for your neighbour’s property. Check that your own meter isn’t hidden somewhere else on your property boundary.

Take note of the usual date on which your meter is read from your previous municipal bills, and take a picture of your meter reading every 30 or 31 days on that date. Make sure you include the meter number, to prove that it’s your meter. Your municipality may offer the facility that allows residents to email pictures of their meter readings to ensure accurate billing every month, but even if it doesn’t, you will have proof of your reading at set intervals.

Another reason to check your account carefully every month is in case the bill is in fact correct, and you have a leak wasting water somewhere. If you notice unusually high consumption, check for leaks on your property by closing the stopcock and monitoring the meter. If in doubt, call a professional.

How to resolve a water billing dispute

If you find any errors on your water bill, raise the matter right away with your municipality. Write a letter to the municipal manager and inform them about your dispute. Attach proof of payments made, and copies of any bills you are disputing. Deliver this letter in person but keep a copy of it and note the date when it was delivered. You can follow up with an email to the municipal manager presenting the same evidence and lodging your dispute. Basically, you’re establishing concrete proof that you are trying to resolve the dispute through the correct channels.

Hopefully, your correspondence will trigger immediate action and the municipality will review your bills, correct the errors and send you an accurate account. In that case, your problem is solved.

If you don’t get a response to your query, or the municipality insists that the bill is correct, you could try contacting your municipal ward councillor for help. If they can’t get the dispute resolved, you may need to seek legal advice. This is why you need records of your actual meter readings and all correspondence between you and the municipality. Your lawyer can then review the evidence and decide whether you have a chance of winning a legal action.

Using less water is good not only for the environment, but also for your finances when the bill arrives

Lawsuits can be expensive, so a court case should be your last resort. If the municipality is clearly in the wrong, a lawyer’s letter may be enough to convince the municipal manager to resolve the dispute without having to go to court.

There are also private consultants who can help you resolve disputes with your municipality, like Council Solutions.

What you should never do

Do not, under any circumstances, simply stop paying your water bill. If there’s a query on your account, you should continue paying a fair monthly amount based on your previous average use – another reason to keep all your previous accounts on file.

Water is a scarce commodity that we need to conserve at all costs, so check for leaks anywhere on your property regularly, invest in water-wise and energy-efficient appliances, reduce your consumption and recycle as much grey water as you can. Report any obvious leaks or pipe bursts outside your property to the municipality as soon as you notice them, and follow up with your ward councillor if no prompt action is taken to reduce the waste.

Using less water is good not only for the environment, but also for your finances when the bill arrives. Just make sure that your municipality is billing you for the right amount.

Boreholes, rainwater collection tanks and innovative technologies like mist nets can reduce your water bills and your reliance on municipal water. For more tips on how to save water and to make every drop count, download the Nedbank Water Savings Guide, developed in partnership with WWF South Africa.