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Getting Hosed: D.C. has an app to warn customers of high water usage; could Chicago use the same?

CHICAGO (CBS) -- For years. The CBS 2 Investigators have been digging into inexplicably bloated water bills as part of our "Getting Hosed" series.

But what if there were a way to get warnings about high water usage before the bill arrived in the mail? CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey found a possible fix out east.

In Chicago, the city's Department of Water Management said they do have warnings when they notice continuously running meters - but none of the customers to whom we've talked received any such warnings.

We're asking if there's a better solution — and Washington, D.C. might have it.

For four years, we've been tracking outrageous water bills. Last month, we talked to Jazmin Juarez - who received a bill for $64,528.52 water bill in the mail.

The city claimed she used an unfathomable 6 million gallons in just two months.

"They told me to hire a good lawyer — that this is probably just a billing issue with the city," Juarez said.

Last week, we talked to Jonathan Seezox - who has been fighting a mystery $10,000 water bill for 924,000 gallons worth of water for more than a year.

"When a bill goes from $50 to $10,000, why is there not a system set up to alert the user before it gets to that amount?" Seezox said.

The Water Department said customers in houses and two-flats are automatically notified if their water meter is running continuously — an indication that there is a break in the line on the property or a running toilet.

But Juarez and Seezox, who both have metered accounts, never got a warning.

They just got the bill.

Thomas L. Kuczynski of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority said that is exactly what they were trying to avoid when they put together their High Usage Alert System back in 2006.

"We can pick up things that traditionally would go for a longer period of time," Kuczynski said.

Now, the D.C. department has a smartphone app.

"It actually gives you the ability to even find smaller leaks more quickly, because it's monitoring consumption on an hourly basis rather than looking at it on an average," Kuczynski said.

Between the high usage and continuous usage alerts, they sent out about 1,500 notifications a month - helping customers locate possible leaks or even identifying possible meter malfunctions, almost in real time.

"Anecdotally you can, you know, see that it's probably cut down substantially on the number of high bill complaints that we would have gotten," Kuczynski said.

Kuczynski says the alert system and app was not a multimillion-dollar piece of technology for them. He estimated it would take about $250,000 to build from scratch - and they did most of the work in house.

We asked Chicago's Water Department for more details on its own program and how it could be improved potentially with an app like this. Late Monday, we were still waiting for a response. 


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