Consumers Pay For Fresh Air On Their Water Bills

Burst water mains in street
Burst water mains in Gauteng. Picture courtesy Pretoria East Record


Every time a water pipe bursts, there’s a good chance that the municipality will rake in thousands of rands from false water meter readings. This is because air passing through consumers’ water meters and water pipes gives false readings that are charged automatically on all water bills.

So if you suddenly have a higher-than-usual water account, this could be the explanation.

If you have a pre-paid meter you are even more at risk. And if you are not the owner of the property, if your landlord refuses to ask the municipality to investigate, chances are you will simply have to pay up!

Investigation by

After a personal experience (see below) and numerous queries to about what appeared to be inflated water accounts we decided to investigate. Scouring through social media and reading many posts and questions on various group websites, it soon became clear that the issue of inflated water bills is commonplace countrywide. At times costs seem to run into thousands of rands over the normal monthly average charge people are used to paying.

By chance, I mentioned the problem to a former management employee from the Benoni Municipality, who said that with the large number of mains supply pipes breaking and leaking in the area that had to be repaired, they had had numerous queries of extremely high water bills in the Benoni area. On investigation he discovered that the air passing through the pipes created these very high meter readings.

Some years later, having moved to the Helderberg, he experienced exactly the same occurance at his business premises after a major water pipe burst. He queried what was an outrageously high account, and the local municipality reversed the amount.

But how widespread is this problem?

Air Entering Burst Water Pipes is a Common Problem

I contacted Jacques-Louis van der Linde, senior technical specialist at Elster Kent Metering one of the main suppliers of water metering equipment to municipalities in South Africa. Castle Water Meters was the chief supplier of water meters in South Africa until a few years ago when they were bought out be Elster Kent. The reality is that the water meters this company put in place now utilize old, out-dated technology. Rather than measuring water as such, these meters measure all flow through the meter – including air.

Water Meter cutaway
A cutaway of a standard traditional water meter with the impeller clearly visible.

Van der Linde confirmed that the problem does often arise when there is a break in the water supply and air gets into the pipework. He also explained that the majority of water meters use an impeller to measure the amount of water passing through the meter (see picture below). When there is a leak in the pipes delivering water to suburban properties, municipal workers have to shut off the water supply whilst the broken section of water supply pipe is being repaired. When the mains are reopened again, there can be a large amount of air that has entered 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.

New Pre-Paid Meters Problematic

An even greater problem arises from the “new” pre-paid water meters. According to van der Linde, there are more than 250,000 of these pre-paid meters already installed countrywide. The problem is that consumers have absolutely no recourse, as money for the meter must be paid up front, and in spite of your constitutional rights to water, if you are cut off, you simply have to top up the meter.

Nevertheless, we may be better off in South Africa than in other African countries that practice “water rationing”.

What happens there is that the water is switched off during the day, and when it is turned back on, the air passing through the meter literally eats up all their money. The saddest part is that most of these people are in poorer African countries, and they cannot afford to keep paying for air!

Have I Been Paying for Air?

Anyone whose water bills suddenly increase for no apparent reason should note whether increased “usage” corresponds with burst water mains in the area.

While leasing a property in Somerset West several years ago, I noticed that the council water meter hadn’t been touched for months. The fact that there was an ants’ nest over the meter glass convinced me no readings had been done (see pic below). Just to cover myself I had taken photographs of the meter a few months apart, in September, November and again in February.

Juliana Water Meter with Ants

The average water bills per month for September, October and November were between R400 and R500. In December this increased to R965; in January to R1,181; and then in February it went up to R1,547.

After a fairly unpleasant conversation and emails with the landlord/estate agent who said that I had obviously watered the garden and filled up the swimming pool, which was not true, I approached the local council and local councillor. Nobody was interested in my problem, maintaining that the readings on the water bills were correct. Their explanation about the ants’ nest was that after each reading by the council meter reader, the ants had come back and re-established their nest. They also maintained that there could be a leaking pipe on the property. They refused to investigate further, stating that the property owner was the only person who could deal with council on this issue. He refused and wasn’t interested in doing his own investigation into possible leaking pipework.

I then cleaned the meter and shut off all the taps as well as the mains water for half a day to see if there was any usage on the meter. There was none, proving it was not a leaking pipe on the property. But in the end I was forced to pay up.

In retrospect, I realized that there had been a number of water “outages” during the periods when the water bills were so high. But unfortunately I realized this too late, and had to write the bills off to experience.

We subsequently moved to another area, in a different municipality and recently had two breaks in the water mains. I am waiting to see what the bill will be, and if it is any higher than usual, will take immediate action.

So What Should You Do?

My advice to anyone who has a break in their water supply, and notices air escaping through their taps when the water flow comes back and they turn the taps on, is make a note of the date and the time of the interruption, and if you are on a billing system (rather than a pre-paid meter), to challenge the council when you get your bill. If you have a pre-paid meter, challenge the council immediately.

SABS Assessing a New Water Meter That Won’t Register Air

The good news is that Elster Kent has a new meter that is currently being assessed by the SABS. This meter can register the density of whatever is passing through the pipes, and if it is not the density of water, it will not register and push up the meter reading.

But it’s going to take a while for all the old meters to be replaced. So in the meantime, be vigilant.

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  1. I had a similar experience about three years ago when I could personally see the meter running while no water was being delivered. I spoke to a reporter of the Rosebank-Killarney Gazette and an article was published. It was immediately poo-pooed by a functionary of the city council. Since I had not taken a movie of the meter running I was unable to prove my point.

    Vindication after thee years!

    Dr Ralph Wortley

  2. Yip … I think a lot of people have had the experience and frustration! We did, and it was only by chance that we discovered the possible answer. Spread the word.

  3. Thank you for the great article. Is there any way to tackle the issue of air before it gets to our water meters for we know the councils we are dealing with. Very hard hearted people.

  4. Generally it only happens when there are burst water pipes. So really all you can do is note the times when water is off because of this and if your water is unusually high (not just a little bit higher) then approach the council. If it happens and you have problems, let us know.

  5. I had exactly the same problem at a property that I rent out in
    Century City. The municipality had dug up the road in the area on
    about four occasions to repair the water pipes and sent accounts of up
    to eight times the normal water consumption. After getting responses
    such as that they did not work there, but they had to sign in through
    security gate so I could prove that to them, to threatening to deduct
    the amount that I refused to pay from the prepaid electricity. I then
    managed to get to Ernest Sonnenberg the MEC’s secretary who was
    really very very helpful and went out of her way to resolve the
    problem. It took 11 months to get a credit which included the interest
    on the account as well!!
    My theory is the same as the one which you were given that the air in
    the pipeline is compressible and water is not and will give seven
    times the volume of water if the flow is low and the water pressure is
    7 bar. If however there is a high flow rate there would be no
    resistance and the impeller could spin at a much higher speed and
    generate any volume as a reading. The first house in the street to
    open a tap would get all of the air so one would not expect the
    neighbouring properties to have a similar problem.

  6. I have often thought of this and experienced it when we have water bursts.

    As a plumber here is my advice. When you notice your water pressure dropping or being shut off for repairs then don’t flush any toilets or use any washing machines or dishwashers or automated sprinkler systems. These valves only shut off once enough water has come in. So they will let lots of air into your property before the water comes through to allow them to fill and shut off.

    Let the council bleed the air out first then start using the toilets and washing machines as usual

  7. What an interesting article. I have experienced exactly what you have covered in your article. My water bill for 4 people per month would average around r700 until I received a bill for 2500. It was an estimation. Yet upon reporting this astronomical bill to the council and advising that there have been pipe bursts in my area I was told to pay as the pipes were not on my property and would not affect my bill. Yet what you covered in this article is exactly what I experienced with air pressure bursting from my taps whenever I opened it. It is freaking absurd.

  8. I have a serious problem related to new standpipe water meters installed in Naledi municipality. paying exorbitant price for air. That means many consumers are paying for air to our municipalities. When the valve on the municipal meter is opened keeping the stopcock on the main line to the premise from the municipal line is closed, meter runs with high speed and reading changes rapidly., but When the valve on the municipal meter is closed, running of the meter stops. Is it a miracle meter??? Quality of these meters are really questionable.

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