WSCAI Submetering Article by Doug Sage

How do you roll-out a sub-metering program?

“Take as much as you need, but please don’t squander it. Leave some for the rest of the community.”

We are taught to be mindful of wasting precious resources like water, electricity and gas. But unbeknownst to you, your neighbor, who pays the same utility dollar amount as you, has a different attitude about utility usage. Perhaps he is unaware of his consumption pattern, but compared to yours it is grossly wasteful. Should he pay more than you, or do you see it as simply the nature of commonly owned commodities–that some will be wasteful while others conscientiously monitor their consumption? A family of four will use more water than the couple next door. Should the large family pay more for the utilities? If a community wide utility usage is not working for your community, there is help available in the form of submetering, meters downstream from the main utility meter.

Early common interest developments installed a single water meter for the development or a building as a less cost means of measuring consumption. Today there are options for communities through more efficient submeters, ratio utility billing systems (RUBS) or hybrid billing system. RUBS allocates estimated consumption based on formulas, such as square footage of units or number of plumbing fixtures. Hybrid systems utilize a point-of-use submeter and extrapolate consumption based on a RUBS formula. Submeters, however, have proven to be the most reliable way to reduce potable water consumption by a readout of a calibrated measurement of the actual consumption. The occupant has a direct bearing on the volume of water used and therefore the amount of his utility bill for potable water and sewer. Quite often the local utility company will provide a single bill for each of their meters, but not for the sub-meters. Therefore, it is the property manager or a licensed third party billing service provider who reads the submeters and sends each unit owner a bill based on consumption against the water rates charged by the local utility. A service fee may be added to the bill, which amounts to about $4-6 per owner per month. The unit owner pays the invoice to the property manager or service provider, who in turn uses the funds to pay the utility district bill.

The largest benefit of submetering is the reduced utility costs—by as much as 11%-26%–as occupants restrict their consumption. Submetering will allow Associations to pinpoint leaks by isolating units instead of a complete building-wide shut down. It enhances conservation throughout the community awareness that could extend to other utilities, like gas and electricity. Even the administrative burden has been eased through service companies capable of efficiently handling the payment process. If you’re Association is still not convinced submetering is a smart choice, consider that potable water costs are predicted to rise faster than the rate of inflation in the coming years.

Most, but not all Associations can take advantage of submetering. To learn if your Association is ready, check the plumbing configuration of your complex. Are units fed by a single water line or multiple lines? Either a plumber or construction manager familiar with plumbing systems can help you. Then, check your governing documents to see whether they allow for separate utility billing. If they don’t, you may have to change your governing documents. Your Association attorney will help sort out the possibilities for the Board.  Code compliant plumbing work within a building can be invasive and it requires careful planning. Ideal meter locations might not be convenient for folks who read them. Fortunately, remote wireless reading is available to record consumption from a remote touchpad. The cost of the meter is fairly reasonable at $250-$500, but the installation cost varies.

Rising water costs and scarcity of resources continues to grab our attention and it will be one of the drivers behind higher Association dues. Selling submetering to the Association should be relatively easy, with cost recovery within two years, it saves most owners money and encourages conservation of resources. But with the average American’s potable water consumption at 80-100 gal/day and potable water relatively scarce at about 3% of earth’s water, the need to measure consumption will continue to be necessary.