During a previous water crisis, the City passed a law requiring developers of multifamily dwellings to install individual water meters for each unit. This law has been on the books since about 1990 (Municipal code 7.12.150). Unfortunately, the city has allowed many buildings to forgo this requirement since then, and many apartment buildings, especially in the downtown area, have master meters for the entire building, but no individual meters for each unit despite this 25-year-old ordinance.

The explanation given by the City is that larger buildings often do not have adequate space in the public right-of-way for individual meters. With this explanation, the City has been approving the construction of large apartment buildings, but then allowing those same developers to avoid installing individual meters. When individual meters are not mandated, most developers will save costs by using a shared rather than an individual water service. Once buildings are completed, the cost to re-pipe them for individual meters becomes cost prohibitive. Forcing them into compliance later is no longer a realistic option.

Many cities around the country have the same individual meter requirement in their municipal codes, and many buildings around the country, including the larger ones, do incorporate individual water meters for each unit. Metering individual units is widely recognized as an effective method for reducing excessive water consumption, because it makes individual consumption known to consumers (compared to a flat monthly payment, which many non-metered buildings have). Despite the lack-of-space argument, new technologies are appearing that will soon make it relatively simpler and more cost-effective to meter individual apartments in new buildings (and in some cases older buildings as well), even in the absence of sufficient room in the public right-of-way (such as alleyways). The City has investigated some of those already, but no decision has been taken to acquire (or require) specific systems.

In any discussion of water meters in multifamily dwellings, it is best to avoid conflating two very different situations: retrofitting existing buildings versus installing individual meters in all-new construction. The former is a complicated, capital-intensive process. There are methods for installing electronic meters in older structures, but those installations can be costly because apartment buildings that have not been configured for individual metering from the start, have plumbing systems in which water supply is shared between a number of stacked or neighboring units. This may require many more meters to be installed throughout a building, often measuring individual rooms or fixtures, compared to new, from-the-ground-up buildings that only require one or two meters for each unit.

New buildings present great opportunities to get it right from the beginning, because with these the solution to the problem is far simpler. Each unit can be serviced and metered separately for both cold and hot water (with the hot water in-line sub-meter located just before the unit’s plumbing entry, so not impacted by the heater position itself). That sub-metering could be done either in the alley, or by means of electric, electronic or mechanical sub-meters located along the plumbing lines to each unit; often within the boundaries of the building itself.

This issue of how to read internally installed meters was solved long ago with remote devices (either wired or wireless) that are in widespread use throughout the world. Yes, this will result in increased costs (current estimates range between $500-$2,000 per unit), but the payback to the community at large far exceeds the costs to the builder, which could be mitigated by means of tax-rebates and other measures. And to keep this in perspective, even the higher cost is equivalent to less than one month’s rent in many of the newer downtown buildings, with a payoff that extends throughout the building’s lifetime.

For those buildings — completely new from the ground up — there really is no reason to avoid installing individual meters, just as there is no reason to give the builder a pass on wall insulation or insulated glass windows or low-flow toilets, faucets and shower heads — all required under current codes. New buildings should be required to be in full compliance with the code as a condition of the certificate of occupancy-including separate water service with individual meters. If the City needs to alter the municipal code to help make this happen, it should do so without further delay.

As a recent correspondent reminded us recently:

“I sure don’t like the fact that exemptions are being provided. How do we stop this? In addition to my house, my family owns a duplex built in the 40’s with only a single water meter. We have no leverage over our tenants if they don’t want to conserve water … there is no good reason … for any new multi-family housing building to be exempt from having to install individual water meters.”

Multi-family buildings are considered to be more efficient users of water than single-family residences. Let’s make sure that this continues to be the case and provide the necessary incentives to help in our crucial water conservation efforts. The City should require multifamily building developers to install individual water meters, with no exceptions.

Daniel Jansenson is an architect with SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow).

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