Utility Watchdog in San Diego

Did your water bill double or triple for no apparent reason? Are you suspicious that the City isn’t reading your meter? Want to know why your water bill remains the same even when you go on vacation? Read our Water Bill Self Help Directory to learn about your water bill and how to keep it as low as possible.

Part 1: “Why is My Bill So High?” – How to Read your City of San Diego Water Bill

A line-by-line explanation of each charge on your water bill.

With the most current round of UCAN's inserts in the City of San Diego water bills, our phones have been lighting up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. One thing we've noticed is that many people do not know how to read their water bill. Callers realize how expensive their water bill is each month, but they don't know what each line item represents. We can help break though all the confusion, but we have to warn you that you can't unsee the horrors that are the Four Horsemen of the Water Bill.

Four Horsemen of the Water Bill

Like their distant brethern in equitation, the Four Horsemen of the Water Bill each represent a terrible thing: a line item on your City of San Diego water bill.

1) Water Base Fee - The water base fee is a flat rate per month based upon the size of your meter. For the typical 5/8 or 3/4 inch meter, the monthly base fee is $19.33. This fee covers meter maintenance and other administrative costs.

2) Water Used - This is the charge for the water you actually consume. The City bills you in HCF, or hundred cubic feet. One HCF is equal to a shade over 748 gallons, or 748 gallon cartons of milk. The City has a tiered rate structure, meaning the more water you use the more you pay per HCF. The cheapest water rate is the first tier, which gives you up to 7 HCF per month. The second tier is between 7 and 14 HCF per month. The third tier is above 14 HCF per month.

3) Sewer Base Fee - Like the water base fee, the sewer base fee is a flat rate per month. Since there is no sewer meter, all single-family residential customers pay the same monthly rate: $16.28

4) Sewer Service Charge - This is the charge for your use of the City's sewer system. Unlike the water use charge, the sewer service charge is not based on your sewer use that billing period but an annualized rate that is calculated during your Winter Monitoring Period. This charge depends not on the amount of water you use in a billing period but on the amount of days in the billing period. If you didn't have a Winter Monitoring Period in the previous year, the City charges you the new customer sewer service charge based upon 9 HCF per month--$34.39 using the current sewer rate.

When Powers Combine

Not including the water use fee, a new customer will pay $70 per month for the water base fee, sewer base fee, and sewer service charge. However, the City bills you bimonthly--once every two months. This means we need to double the monthly charges, making a new customer's bill--without including the water use fee--$140 every billing period. Shocking, yes, but not as shocking as this next revelation: three out of the four horsemen are fixed charges.

Yes, that's right. Three out of the four main charges on your water bill have nothing to do with how much water you use in a billing period. I'll repeat that last point for emphasis: three out of the four main charges on your water bill have nothing to do with how much water you use in a billing period.

The Fix Is In

If you re-read the description of the water base fee, the sewer base fee, and the sewer service charge, you'll find that these are all fixed costs. Whether you use 1 HCF or 100 HCF, those three charges are fixed and will not change. The only portion of your bill you control every month is the water use charge. 

To further exemplify this point, what would happen if a City of San Diego water customer used the lowest billable amount of water every two months--1 HCF? Using 1 HCF would put this conserving customer in the first tier of $3.612 per HCF. For the sake of argument, let's say this customer also had an annualized sewer service charge of 1 HCF, which would add another $3.8211 to the bill. The customer's overall bill for a two month period would be $78.65. Almost $80 to use 1 HCF that cost $3.612. 

Frightened yet? I'm terrified of the Four Horsemen of the Water Bill.

Part 2: How to Read Your Water Meter
A step-by-step guide on how to locate, open, and view your meter.  This guide also shows you how to check the read against your bill to ensure your bill is accurate.

Did you know you had a not-so-secret double agent spy just outside your house? It lurks in the ground just outside your house and it is keeping tabs on how much water you use -- the water meter. But it doesn't take much to turn this device into your own spy. By just reading your water meter periodically, you can know whether the City of San Diego is reading your meter accurately or is estimating your water bill.

Don’t know how to read your meter? No problem. It’s as easy as following four simple steps. Just remember, all you need is L-O-V-E:

L – Locate your meter. Generally, water meters are located in or near the sidewalk or street bordering one side of your house. They should have a concrete, plastic, or (occasionally) metal cover. Sometimes meter boxes are buried under dirt and debris or are obscured by vegetation.

O – Open your meter. Meter box covers have a hole in the middle that allows the covers to be lifted using a tool. The City’s meter readers use a special tool, but I’ve found that a screwdriver does the trick. Be sure to wear gloves when opening a meter box, as nasty critters like spiders and pillbugs love to make your meter their home.

V – View your meter. The meter should have a large face with a number on it. That number is your current read in HCF (Hundred Cubic Feet, the unit of water that the City bills for). To determine your water use, the City subtracts your current read from your previous read. An inaccurate read by the City can lead to a bill that’s much higher than what you should be paying.

E – Ensure the accuracy of your water bill. Reading your meter is all well and good, but to keep the water department from drying out your wallet, you need hard evidence. Record your meter reading in a spreadsheet. The city’s meter readers almost always do their reads 57 to 63 days from the last day of your previous billing period. Check your most recent water bill and find the last day of the service period that you were billed for. Then read your meter twice, once 57 days later and once 63 days later. When you get your next bill, compare the number under the “current meter reading” heading with your two reads. An accurate meter read should be somewhere between the number you jotted down at 57 days and the number you recorded at 63 days. If it isn’t, there’s a problem.

Part 3: The Definitive Guide on What to Do if Your Bill Skyrockets

A six step guide to checking your meter, checking for leaks on your property, and checking for leaks at the meter.

If you received a rogue water bill that is double or triple your normal usage, this guide is for you. There could be a couple of things going on (and a couple ways to get out of it!).

Situation A: The meter reader misread your meter.

Check the reading on your water meter to ensure it matches your bill. For instructions on reading your meter and checking your bill, read sections “V” and “E” on Part 2: How to Read Your Meter. If the reading on the bill is higher than the reading on the meter, call the water department and point out their error.  They’ll send a meter reader to re-check your meter and issue you a credit. If the read is ok, move on to the next steps.

Situation B: There is a leak at the meter.

Check for leaks and damp ground around the meter. If your meter box is flooded, stop, call the water department and apply for a bill adjustment. The good news is that you are not responsible for the pipe leading to the meter. If the leak occurred during your winter monitoring period, you may be able to get your sewer charge adjusted as well. If it meter box looks good, go on to the next steps.

Situation C: There is a leak on your property.

Check for leaks around the property. To do this, turn off all the water in your home house. Think, sinks, washing machine, dishwasher, ice maker, water heater, sprinklers, and drip irrigation. Check for visual signs of leaks. Then go out to the box. Your meter should have a small hand that spins whenever water is being used. If you see movement, it is likely that you have an underground or slow leak on your property. And, I hate to say it but, call a plumber. The sooner you pay the money for a plumber to find and fix the leak the sooner your water bill will go back down. If the leak is a slab leak you may be able to get a partial credit from the City; otherwise you’ll be footing the whole bill. Either way, fix the leak ASAP because the City will not adjust your bill until it is fixed.

Situation D: The meter is malfunctioning.

 If your reads are correct, if there are no leaks at the meter and no leaks on your property, it may be the meter itself. If you believe the meter is malfunctioning, you can request a meter controversy test. A meter controversy test for a ¾ inch or 5/8 inch meter costs $66. The City will return the $66 to you if they discover that the meter was malfunctioning, but they will keep it if they determine it is functioning correctly.

Situation E: You actually used that much water. 

This isn’t the answer that anyone wants to hear but sometimes it’s true: you just used that much water. Take a hard look at your water usage. If you irrigate, it’s common to experience big usage spikes during hot summer months. If you think someone might be stealing your water, consider putting locks on your outside faucets.

No matter what situation you’ve landed in: if you’re having trouble paying your high bill, ask for a deferral. To defer, your bill must be at least 200% more than your normal usage and must pay your normal amount by the due date. You will only be allowed to defer once in the life of the account and the amount will be split evenly for up to 12 months.