Have You Been Paying for Air?

Wondering why you suddenly have a higher than usual water account?

As if we do not have enough Service Delivery problems in this country already!

The issue of inflated water bills is commonplace in SA. At times costs seem to run into thousands of Rands over the normal monthly average people are used to paying.

“The water pipes at my place were making a noise; you could hear the air blowing through the pipes, so luckily I decided to check the water meter. Lo and behold, the meter was running like crazy and NO water in the pipes! And we are being charged for this!”

The reality is that the typical water meters installed, utilize old, outdated technology. Rather than measuring water as such, these meters measure all and any flow through the meter – including air. The problem starts when there is a break in the water supply and air gets into the pipework.

Because water is denser than air, the air is compressed and passes through the pipe and subsequently through the meter, very fast, making the impeller inside the meter literally spin out of control. Depending on the amount of air involved, this can cause your meter to run up an unreal, totally false water reading – which goes hand-in-hand with very high water bills.

According to Mark Shamley, MD of Elster Kent Metering, ”All mechanical meters read air flow, unfortunately, irrespective of manufacturer. As the measuring element is mechanical and driven by a fluid, either water or air, they do “read” air flow.  The only option not to read air is to use a fully electronic meter – and these come at a significant cost.”

In an investigative report by Penny Swift, journalist and founder of Sans 10400 Building regulations, she said “I really don’t think they are ripping us off as such, I think most of the individuals in the municipalities don’t even realize it.”

It is difficult to believe that municipality departments responsible aren’t aware of this? Technical specifications about how these mechanical water meters function acknowledge that this is actually a common issue that engineers should be aware of. So incompetence sounds like a more likely explanation…


What I don’t understand is; as a normal standard, should there not be automatic air release valves fitted in the main water lines which would bleed all the air prior to it being sent down the lines?




Another solution is to fit a fairly small inexpensive air release valve just in front of the consumer’s water meter. The problem with this though is who pays for the valve as everything up to and including the meter belongs to the municipality, unless you’re in a complex in which case it is the bulk meter. 

The biggest problem though is proving that your high water bill was due to air in the pipes before your water meter!

First you need to ensure it’s not a water leak on your side of the meter. The best way to find out if you have a leak is by monitoring the water meter. Here’s how to go about it:

  • Turn Off All Water: Start by making sure there isn’t any water being used inside or outside your home including lawn or garden irrigation, toilets, clothes washers, dishwashers, taps, and automatic backflow cleaning in whole house water filters.
  • Check Flow Indicator: open the cover on the water meter at the street to see if it has a flow indicator. This is a meter that can detect even small amounts of water flow. If the flow indicator is moving, you have a leak somewhere in your house or yard.

Proving to the municipality that it was not a leaking pipe on your property is only the start of your problems. You will be forced to pay the bill 1st and then take your fight further, which can and will become a very lengthy and frustrating procedure.

At the end of the day, the water meter is the cash till of the system. The cheapest meter is not necessarily the best revenue meter, and in the long run procuring a good quality, good revenue meter can pay back in less than a month. The actual cost of metering should take into consideration the average cost of the meter, plus the cost of water that the meter doesn’t measure. – Mark Shamley, MD of Elster Kent Metering

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