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How Submetering Works

Produced by Annette Duke, Staff Attorney & Director of Housing Publications, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created March 2005

Water going into any residential property first goes through a primary meter, which measures all the water going into the property. The water provider (which in most cases is the city or town where the property is located) is responsible for providing water through the primary meter and for setting the cost of the water (and, in many places, the cost of the sewer service, as well).

In Boston, for example, water is provided through the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. In Cambridge, the water company is the Cambridge Water Department. Worcester provides water though its Department of Public Works. The landlord is the customer of record with respect to the water bill and is responsible for its payment.

Under the new water law, water use for individual apartments must then be measured by submeters. The landlord is responsible for having the submeters read and for billing tenants for their water use.

In residential property with more than one rental unit, common areas, such as shared laundry facilities, outdoor faucets, and water used in common heating systems must be separately submetered. Water used in these common areas cannot be charged to any tenant.9

A tenant can be billed only for actual water usage as measured by the submeter for his or her unit.10 If the landlord has not installed submeters, you cannot be billed directly for water.

How does submetering work if I rent a single-family house?

If you are renting a single-family house instead of an apartment, a landlord may bill you for water directly. In such a case, the landlord is not required to install a submeter if the primary meter measures only water that goes to an area used exclusively by you. The primary meter cannot, however, also measure water that goes to a common area or area not in your exclusive use. For example, if the landlord uses an outdoor faucet to water the lawn, you cannot be billed for water measured by the primary meter because you do not have exclusive use over the area. In order to bill you directly for water, the landlord is required to install a submeter to measure the water used exclusively by you and must meet all the other requirements of the law (see Who pays for Water?).11

What certificate must a landlord file before billing a tenant for water?

Before a landlord can bill a tenant directly for water, a landlord must file a certification with the local board of health (or other municipal agency that enforces the State Sanitary Code). This certification must include a statement that:12

1.The water submeter was installed by a licensed plumber and meets certain standards as provided by the law;

2.All showerheads, faucets, and toilets in the unit are water conservation fixtures meeting the standards of the law;

3.All toilets were installed by a licensed plumber; and

4.The tenant in the rental unit can be charged for water either because the unit is being occupied for the first time on or after March 16, 2005, or because the previous tenant was evicted for nonpayment of rent, or was evicted for breach of the rental agreement on or after March 16, 2005 or left voluntarily. In other words, the landlord did not harass a tenant to get him or her to move out so that the landlord could bill the next tenant for water.

The landlord must sign this certification under the “penalties of perjury,” which means that he or she swears the information is true. If a landlord has not filed this certification for a unit, he or she cannot charge the tenant for water. To find out whether your landlord has filed, check with your local board of health and ask whether they have the certification. To find your local board of health, contact your city or town hall. In Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester, contact the Inspectional Services Department.

What water conservation measures must a landlord take before billing for water?

Before billing a tenant directly for water, a landlord must install water conservation fixtures (faucets, showerheads, and toilets) in an apartment. These fixtures must meet certain low-flow standards set out in the law.13

These low-flow standards have been required by federal law for new construction and renovation since 1994. So, it is likely that fixtures purchased and installed by the landlord after 1994 will meet the low-flow requirements of the law.14

The landlord is also responsible for making sure that these water conservation fixtures are fully functioning at the beginning of every new tenancy.15

Who pays for the installation of the submeter and water conservation fixtures?

The landlord must pay to install submeters and must pay for the cost of installing water conservation fixtures.16 These costs cannot be passed on to tenants.

The landlord must also certify that he or she has had the water-conserving toilets installed by a licensed plumber and must file this certification with the local board of health (or municipal agency responsible for enforcing the State Sanitary Code).


9 See definition of “common area” and “submetering” in M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(a).

10 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(b) and (e).

11 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(p)

12 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(c).

13 See definition of “water conservation device” in M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(a). Showerheads cannot exceed 1½ gallons of water per minute; faucets cannot exceed 2 2/10 gallons of water per minute; and toilets cannot exceed 1 6/10 gallons of water per minute.

14 42 U.S.C. § 6295(j) and (k).

15 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(e).

16 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(b).

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