Landlords and billing companies argue it's environmentally responsible to estimate how much to charge unmetered apartment residents for their water because the little-known practice could save drought-stricken Maryland up to 7.2 billion gallons of water a year if it's expanded.
But that assertion - made in a filing to a Howard County commission that is considering whether to regulate unmetered water billing in the county - appears to be unsubstantiated, some experts say.
The question of whether unmetered apartments should be billed has stirred debate across the nation. Tenants who live in a complex that uses unmetered billing, often known as a Ratio Utility Bill System or a RUBS, do not have their water and sewer costs included in the rent but instead pay a share of the complex's total water bill.
The study used by the unmetered billing advocates to project water savings lacks statistical integrity and should not be used to set policy, water conservationists say.
They contend that the study, titled "Submetering, RUBS and Water Conservation," has too small a sample size, does not fully examine whether residents use less water after they start paying for it and fails to fully analyze key elements about rental cost and plumbing infrastructure.
The study is "statistically worthless. If it is being used for anything other than anecdotal evidence, I would strongly, strongly object," said Dan Strub, a water conservation specialist with the city of Austin, Texas.
In the third of four scheduled public hearings, the Howard County commission will hear testimony on the billing issue tonight at 7 in the second-floor conference room of Columbia Gateway Building, at 6751 Columbia Gateway Drive.
Generally, the landlord will pay a percentage of the total bill, while the rest is divided among residents according to a formula that depends upon variables such as the number of rooms, people or square feet in their apartment. Depending on the formula, a single person in a two-bedroom apartment could pay as much in water and sewer charges as a family of four that lives in a similar unit.
Some communities have banned the practice and jurisdictions such as Montgomery County and the city of Memphis, Tenn., are considering regulating it.
At least two dozen Howard apartment complexes make their residents pay for water and sewer and some residents have complained that some RUBS bills force them to pay far more for their water and sewer than residents of single-family homes.