Individually Metering Apartments for Water

Recurring droughts are a fact of life in California and one of the most effective long-term solutions for conserving water in the state is the conversion of master-metered apartment buildings to individual meters. According to a study by the EPA. when master-metered buildings are converted to individual meters, water consumption drops by 28%. Naturally, tenants conserve water when they have to pay for it. A DWP study reported in the LA Times (1/15/’15) disclosed that multifamily buildings consume 30% of the water in Los Angeles. The math indicates that individually metering them would result in a savings of 8% in the city’s overall water usage. If that extrapolates to Beverly Hills, then the same opportunity exists for our city.

It is the position of BHAA that the Beverly Hills Water Department (“BHWD”) should initiate a program of installing water meters on individual apartments in multifamily buildings and billing tenants directly for their water usage.

Several years ago, Assemblyman Paul Fong introduced AB-19, legislation which required all apartment owners to contract with water submetering companies which apportion the master-meter bill to individual apartments, usually using the “RUBS” system, a formula based on the square footage of each apartment and the number of people living in it, then send individual bills to each tenant. This approach places the burden of individual metering upon apartment owners, requiring them to become mini-utilities, so apartment associations opposed AB-19. It died in committee.

The proper solution is to place the burden of individual metering where it belongs: On the water utilities themselves. For the first hundred years of indoor plumbing, this was impracticable. Meters had to be visually accessible to readers, commonly at the backs of buildings. Individual metering also necessitated each apartment having its own dedicated water line from the city water supply. Developers rarely built buildings this way because it greatly increased the cost of the plumbing.

But technology has changed that. In recent years, water meters have gone electronic. They are about the size and shape of a plastic tub of cottage cheese, cylindrical with a taper towards the back. The readings are transmitted via phone line, sending the data directly to the water company. Therefore, it is no longer necessary that meters be accessible to meter-readers. This means that they can be placed between apartments, allowing a single water line to service multiple apartments.

Who will pay for these conversions, installing meters between apartments? The meters themselves are inexpensive, just $80 for a top-of-the-line Model T-10 from Neptune Technology, installed citywide by the Beverly Hills Water Department. Research by BHAA members has disclosed that a typical competent submetering company can install a pair of meters – one hot and one cold – on a 5-story apartment building at a charge of less than $800 per apartment. Arithmetic shows that the expenditure is recouped within 18 months by relief from the water bill. So owners are generally agreeable to paying for the installation costs to be forever freed from financial responsibility for water consumption by tenants, an expense which is out of owners’ control.

If the BHWD will declare that it is ready to start reading meters that are installed to code – say, by a licensed plumbing contractor from a list of those approved by the BHWD – and prepared to start billing tenants directly, then we believe that there will be a stampede of owners willing and eager to pay for the installation of such meters.

Tenants may at first feel that paying for water separate from rent is an “increase” in expenses. But water cost is already included in rents and tenants are paying 28% more than is necessary. And it will be no windfall for owners, the market quickly adjusts. In the cold states, where heating bills are sometimes separate from rent, there is a differential depending on whether heat is included. The same will happen with water. Ultimately, tenants’ overall living expense will decrease.

The real opposition to such change in California will come from utilities. They must send out more bills and deal with more customers to sell 28% less product. But utilities exist for the public interest. Many, such as the BHWD, are owned by the city. The BHWD advocates water conservation and gleefully collects penalties in the cause. How hypocritical it would be to oppose a move that is in the best interests of the public just because the burden of effort now falls upon itself.

We believe that individual water metering in multifamily properties will eventually be required in all of the dry southwestern states. Master-metering is just too pointless a waste of water, it benefits no one. And we believe that California should lead the way. But the mandate should be on the 2,850 water utilities in California, not on the approximately 487,000 apartment owners. And why shouldn’t Beverly Hills be the leader in California? But the BHWD cannot take that initiative on its own. It requires the leadership of the City Council. Our elected officials should adopt such a program and issue a directive to BHWD commencing such conversions without delay.

BH City Council Argument, May 7, 2019