Water and electricity readings remain a constant source of frustration in South Africa, especially when ‘actual’ readings for consumption are clearly not ‘actuals’ and therefore 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 says.

“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 notes 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 says.

“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 (they have ‘mixed up’ meters and meter readings), or because the meter reader has incorrectly recorded the actual readings from the meter,” she adds.

“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 therefore correct.”

She adds 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.