Unusually high water bill?

There are two possible reasons why you may have suddenly received an unusually high water bill. Either the City* has made a mistake on the account and it is not correct, or you have a water leak at the premises.

Incorrect bill
If you are certain that your bill is incorrect, log a query with the City’s call centre on (011) 375 5555 and ask them to investigate the account, and adjust it, to correct the bill. Once you have logged a query, the City is legally bound to investigate your query, to resolve your query, and to notify you of the outcome of your query in writing.

This should take place within one to two months. If your query has not been resolved by the time that you receive your next bill, phone and log another query because your prior query might have been closed without resolution.

Water leak
The City owns the water meter and the supply from the street to the water meter. You own the pipes from the water meter into the house. The water leak could be before the meter (in which case it usually won’t cause your bill to increase), at the meter, or between the meter and the house. In the latter two instances, this will usually cause your bill to increase.

It is your responsibility to investigate and stop a leak if it occurs between the meter and the house.

It is the City’s responsibility to investigate and stop a leak if it occurs at the meter, because the meter is owned by the City and tampering with it is a criminal offence.

What to do if you suspect that you have a leak
If you suspect that you have a water leak you should immediately contact the Johannesburg call centre and log a query for the City to send technicians to investigate whether there is a leak in the part of the system that falls under the City’s responsibility to maintain.

If you suspect that you have water leak between the meter and your house, you should immediately contact a plumber or a leak detector to check if you have a leak at the premises. If they have determined that you have a leak at the premises have them fix it and ask them to provide you with a report detailing the leak with an emphasis on location and confirming that the leak was repaired. The City’s policy is that if a leak occurs outside the property or is as a result of a faulty meter then the consumer cannot be liable for the wasted water. However, if the leak is located within the boundaries of the property then the consumer will be liable for the charges.

Can I claim a refund for the leak?
If circumstances are such that you would have become aware of the leak sooner if the City had taken regular actual readings of the meter, or you tried to obtain your accounts to see how much you need to pay, but they were not available to you from the City’s call centre, then an argument could be made that you as the consumer should not be liable for the charges flowing from the leak. However, this will be dealt with on a case by case basis.

Certain homeowner’s insurance policies also make provision for a refund to a consumer where a water leak causes unusually high municipal charges. However, this is not the case in every policy and the homeowner should be aware of the contents of his agreement with his insurer.

However, you cannot claim for a leak if you were not pro-active and did not take reasonable measures to ensure that there was no leak, and/or if there was a leak that it was detected and stopped within a reasonable time and/or you were pro-active and took reasonable steps to retrieve invoices if they had not been supplied to you by the City.

What is ‘reasonable’ depends on the circumstances. Sometimes leaks grow over time, because the hole in the pipe grows with each passing month. In cases such as these, high bills might not be received immediately and it might take a few months before the financial impact of the leak is apparent from looking at the accounts. Other times, a massive bill in the one month will indicate that something is wrong and the consumer should immediately respond by investigating the cause of the high account.

What precautionary measures can I take?
As a precaution, if you have not had your water meter read for an extended period, check if the estimated readings are close to the reading on your meter. If they are not, log a query for your meters to be read, or upload the readings onto the City’s website (when it is available, which is not all of the time). This will minimise your chances of receiving an excessively high bill based on many months of estimated readings that are later adjusted for actual readings, in a situation where you have been consistently under-billed based on estimated readings for an extended period of time.

Other than this, all you can do is be vigilant in obtaining and checking the charges on your account for reasonableness. Remember that water usage does vary with changes in season, and that the cost of water rises every year in July.

But if you suspect that anything is wrong, log a query or contact a plumber immediately. Do not wait and hope that the problem will fix itself, because you will then be liable for the charges!

Ramon Pereira and Chantelle Gladwin,
Schindlers Attorneys

*City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. This advice applies equally to all municipalities, however, but the contact number given for the call centre is specifically for Joburg.

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