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Tracking past water use difficult at Encinitas apartment complex

For more than four years, the Essex Heights Apartments received approximately the same bi-monthly water bill, regardless of indoor and outdoor use.
( / Jared Whitlock)

At the Essex Heights Apartments in Encinitas, the property management company has taken steps to conserve water over the past four years.

Grass was ripped out in many areas and drought-friendly landscaping was planted. Efficient sprinklers were put in.

The changes point to lower water use at the 248-unit complex. But there’s no way to know for sure. The wrong meter configuration was installed there in 2011 — and earlier meter problems also plagued the complex.

From January 2011 to May of this year, the San Dieguito Water District estimated the property’s water use based on past Essex Heights bills, when a functioning meter was in place. During this four-year plus period, the complex received approximately the same bi-monthly bill, regardless of indoor and outdoor use.

Estimating an apartment complex’s consumption for four years is unheard-of locally, according to two experts who were contacted for this story. Yet representatives from the water district say the water system at Essex Heights presents unique challenges, and that a new meter installed in May is accurately reading water flows.

Judy Hanson, who retired as the San Dieguito Water District’s finance supervisor in 2010, said typically water districts estimate consumption for a month or two when a meter breaks down, and up to a year in rare cases for especially pesky meters.

Hanson and others reached for this story said there are no laws governing how long water districts can estimate use at multidwelling units. Nonetheless, Hanson stated, working meters ensure accurate billing. She added it’s important to account for every drop during a severe drought.

She said the Essex Heights meter was a problem even before she retired.

“I think it’s very important that they resolve this issue,” said Hanson, just before the new meter was installed last month.

Typical of older apartments, Essex Heights tenants don’t receive individual water bills. Rather, Cal West Enterprises, a property management company, pays a master bill for the entire complex, and tenants are charged a flat fee in rent that also covers water costs.

Because of the wrong meter configuration, the complex has been billed based on average consumption from 2008 to 2010, but in today’s water prices. Rates for multidwelling units have gone up by 22.5 percent since 2010, according to the district.

Hanson, who is on the Leucadia Wastewater District board, said she doesn’t want to “sound too negative,” adding that the district has had to grapple with a difficult situation at Essex Heights.

San Dieguito district General Manager Bill O’Donnell said the meter difficulties at Essex Heights are largely because of the water system design. It was built as a private system, where one meter handles water use for the entire complex, making it tough to measure both high and low water flows.

If Essex Heights were a new development, the district would require a public water system with smaller meters throughout the complex to share the load, O’Donnell said. He added that retrofitting to such a configuration today would mean “taking on a private water system we’re not 100 percent sure was built to our standards.”

“Basically, our ratepayers would be responsible for anything that went wrong out here,” O’Donnell said.

The district’s problems at Essex Heights began in 2008, when a meter broke down after only 2 1/2 years because it couldn’t handle high flows. Two subsequent meters from the same manufacturer each lasted less than a year. In January 2011, the district turned to estimating.

Wanting to finally fix the problem, the district installed a new meter setup in September 2011, O’Donnell said, after it consulted with supplier Badger Meter. It proved to be the wrong configuration, with a later test from an outside firm showing poor meter accuracy.

“They gave us the best advice they could, and we really couldn’t go after them,” O’Donnell said of Badger. “Each situation is very unique, and they tried their best.”

John Fillinger, director of marketing of Badger Meter, said he didn’t have specific information on the Essex Heights meter setup. Generally speaking, he added it sounds like the correct meter setup for such a complex, but other variables, such as how it was installed, could have been at play.

“Whether there are variables that need to be addressed at that specific site, that I can’t address because I wasn’t on site,” Fillinger said.

O’Donnell said he’s confident the new meter will continue to be accurate. He previously said the state-of-the art technology relies on ultrasonic sensors to track water flow, rather than moving parts that can fail.

“We were waiting for the technology to catch up,” he said in regard to why it took so long to find a new meter.

The district paid $8,535 for the meter that failed in 2008, while the two manufacturer replacements were under warranty at no cost. The 2011 Badger meter cost the district $10,300, and the meter installed last month was $5,620.

O’Donnell said the Essex Heights situation is “very unique,” and estimating for such a lengthy period hasn’t occurred elsewhere in the district. In a follow-up interview this week, he said Essex Heights will soon be billed with the new meter.

If future bills show water use has dropped compared with estimated bills, the district could give the complex a credit, O’Donnell said.

The district declined to release past and future Essex Heights water bills, saying that is private information that can be released only with the complex’s permission.

Scott Kelly, vice president of Cal West Enterprises, said he wasn’t aware that the San Dieguito district was estimating water use at the complex. He said he planned to discuss the matter with the district this week.

While he has questions, Kelly credited the district with aiding Cal West in making drought-friendly changes.

“We’ve had a good relationship over the years,” he said.

Alan Pentico, executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association, said when a meter breaks, estimating for one month to four months is typical.

On a related note, he said pending state legislation would require that new apartment complexes submeter and provide individual bills, changes that have been shown to encourage conservation. Old apartments are excluded from the law, though.

District board President Catherine Blakespear, who has been on the job six months, said this was the first she had heard of the Essex Heights meter situation. At first glance, she said Essex Heights is one property, but accuracy should be prioritized to encourage conservation throughout the district.

“We want to encourage apartment complexes to do exactly what they’ve done,” she said of water-saving measures at Essex Heights.


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