The 3 types of ‘readings’ to look out for on your water and lights bill – and how to make sure you only pay what you owe

Water and electricity readings remain a constant source of frustration in South Africa, especially when ‘actual’ readings for consumption are clearly not ‘actuals’ and thus cannot be true and proper readings.

According to Chantelle Gladwin-Wood, partner at Schindlers Attorneys, there are two main types of readings that a municipality can use to bill a consumer for metered consumption for electricity and water.

“The first is an ‘estimated reading’, which is where the municipality does not actually go to your property and take a reading from the meter at your property but rather uses an algorithm to guess how much electricity or water you have consumed,” she said.

“This is contrasted with an ‘actual’ reading, which is used to bill a consumer when a meter reader has been to the property and has physically taken a reading from the meters at the property, or when there are ‘smart’ meters at the property transmitting the readings to the municipality periodically.”

She noted that if you have received an invoice with estimated readings that are wildly out of kilter with the reading as it appears on your meter, then you need to raise a billing query with the municipality concerned and ask that it verify your actual readings, and bill you accordingly.

However, the issue is slightly more problematic with actual readings, Gladwin-Wood said.

“This might have happened because the smart meter is not working properly and incorrect readings have been transmitted to the municipality, or because the meter readers have applied the incorrect readings to the meters (i.e. they have “mixed up” meters and meter readings), or because the meter reader has incorrectly recorded the actual readings from the meter,” she said.

“These types of errors are difficult to fix because certain municipalities (such as Johannesburg) will often tell consumers that they are not allowed to raise a query disputing ‘actual’ readings, because to their minds there is no query to raise – on their systems the meter reading reflects as an actual reading and is thus correct.”

She added that a municipality cannot lawfully refuse to allow a consumer to log a billing query or dispute simply on the basis that what appears on the municipality’s system is correct and the consumer therefore must be wrong, because (logically) the possibility always exists that the municipality’s system is wrong and that the consumer is right.

What to do

“If this happens to you, and you are not permitted to log a query with Johannesburg municipality, keep proof that you have attempted to log the query and then proceed on to the next ‘step’ in the municipality’s prescribed dispute resolution procedure, which is to deliver a written complaint to the municipality,” she said.

“We would advise outlining in the written complaint that you had attempted to log a query but were unable to do so due to the refusal of the municipality’s consultants to allow this to happen.

“It is also advisable for a person trying to log such a query, to obtain an interaction number from the municipality which will serve as proof of the attempt to log a query.

“The municipality will not issue you with a reference number for the query if it is not of the view that it is a valid query and so the interaction number is the next best thing that a consumer can keep as proof of the attempt in logging the query,” she said.

‘Deemed’ readings

The matter is further complicated by the use of ‘deemed’ readings.

“A deemed reading occurs where the municipality is adjusting a consumer’s account to bill the consumer for a guestimate of consumption in the situation where the meter was not working at all, or was faulty, or where there was no meter,” said Gladwin-Wood.

She noted that in these kinds of situations, there is no actual and/or reliable recording of the consumption at the property, and so the municipality does an extrapolation to guess what the consumer’s consumption was.

“The municipality will normally install a new (functioning) meter, take three month’s readings, and then calculate the average and apply it to the period where there were no accurate/reliable readings,” she said.

“Deemed readings appear on invoices in Joburg as ‘actual’ readings and this makes it very confusing for consumers who can clearly see that the reading indicated on their invoice cannot possibly be correct – for example in the situation where the meter has been removed from the property but the municipal invoice indicates that it is billing the consumer on an actual reading for a period after the meter was removed.”

Gladwin-Wood said that you need to ascertain from the municipality, the basis of the calculation for a ‘deemed’ reading to determine whether that calculation is arithmetically correct and whether it is fair.

“If it turns out that there is either a calculation error or that the municipality has loaded the account with unfair charges, then the consumer can follow the standard dispute resolution process provided for by that particular municipality in taking it up with them,” she said.

“This would include first logging a query (but if you are not permitted to log a query because the municipality’s system says that the reading is an ‘actual’, then skip this step as advised above).”

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The 3 types of ‘readings’ to look out for on your water and lights bill – and how to make sure you only pay what you owe