Some smart meters are known to be unreliable. / Image courtesy of NBC 7

There’s a lot the city doesn’t know about the extent of problems with its $67 million “smart” water meter program.

But it did know at least two years ago that problems existed, emails released this week show – a fact that conflicts with earlier statements the city made about an April 2016 meeting between water department officials and the company that makes the smart meters.

Since 2010, the city has spent roughly $7 million to buy 74,000 Hersey-brand water meters from Atlanta-based Mueller Water Products.

In April 2016, a Mueller representative asked for a meeting with water department officials to talk about problems with the meters, according to documents the city released this week to Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Responds following a Public Records Act request.

According to the city, the problem is that an odometer-style dial on the meters can “flutter.” When that happens, the meters may need to be read by a city employee. The Hersey meters were intended to be “smart” meters, which means they should be able to provide real-time data on water use and eliminate the need for human meter readers.

Nine city staffers and two Mueller representatives attended the 2016 meeting. Afterward, the city said it had found about 250 problem meters that it wanted to return the company.

What happened next is unknown: So far, city officials haven’t been able to determine if they ever returned the meters or if the company ever replaced them.

Mueller said it’s sent the city about 400 replacement parts since 2010. The city could not confirm those numbers, but is still trying to find the records.

“We have not given up on this yet,” said water department spokeswoman Katie Keach.

A few hundred meters out of 74,000 may not seem like much of a problem – but the number of malfunctioning meters could be much higher. Again, the city doesn’t know yet.

The “glitch,” as city officials have described it, only appears when meters are hooked up to a radio system that allows them to send water use data from customers to the city.

Even though the city has bought 74,000 Hersey meters, it’s only put 69,000 of them in the ground and, of those, only 12,000 are hooked up to radio system so that they are actually “smart.” That means the city has several million dollars’ worth of water meters that it’s not sure will work as intended when they are attached to radio transmitters.

The city points out that those meters can still be read by city employees – though that, of course, defeats the point of having a “smart” meter program in the first place.

Mueller has told the city only a fraction of its meters will act up, but at least one other agency in San Diego – the Padre Dam Municipal Water District in East County – found so many problems with Hersey meters that it stopped buying them. In April 2017, a year after Mueller met with San Diego officials, the company disclosed problems with its meters to investors, saying its products could prematurely fail; it’s not clear if those problems are the same ones the company disclosed to the city.

The city has been slow to disclose problems. In January, water department spokesman Jerry McCormick said the city had no “exceptional or unexpected problems” with the smart meter program. The same month, a current and former water department official both tried to thwart  an audit of the smart meter program.

Just a few weeks ago, McCormick downplayed the significance of the April 2016 meeting, calling it a “site visit” so that Mueller could “check on the contract and the products.”

Emails released this week by the city make clear why the meeting was held: “The meeting is requested by Mueller Team to investigate the issues with Hersey meters,” a water department staffer wrote in an email to schedule the April 2016 meeting.

Now, it’s unclear how the city should proceed with its smart meter program.

Smart meters issues have caused internal problems for city staff, but not billing errors for customers, according to a city audit released last week.

That audit was one of two water departments audits released last week. Each, oddly, gave conflicting advice about the future of the city’s smart meter program.

One audit was done by West Monroe Partners, a consulting firm. It urged the city to increase the use of smart meters.

The other, done by the city auditor, said the city needed to closely monitor its smart meters because some are known to act up.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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