April 15, 2004

City Utilities Take Step Forward In Technology World

The Memphis City Council approved the gradual transition to automated meters for both water and electricity service that will dramatically reduce the utilities’ meter-reading requirements.
Technology often can reduce workload, but not many businesses have the opportunity to transform three weeks of work into an afternoon stroll around town. That is exactly what the City of Memphis is hoping to do with its newly approved automated utility meters.

In a special meeting March 16, the City Council voted 3-0 (Alderman Mike Stone was not present at the meeting) to move forward with a plan to install the new meter system. The proposal calls for the transition of the town’s water and electricity meters into new units that will generate an electronic signal, which will allow the meters to be read by a handheld unit.

The project will cost an estimated $275,000 to install new automated meters as well as the transmitters on the existing electronic meters for the more than 1,000 customers of the city’s water and light services.

“Obviously we are not going to do this overnight,” stated Superintendent Dennis Howard. “We are going to space this out over the next three to five years both for budgetary reasons as well as the fact that we don’t want all of these meters to come on line at the same time. You should change a water meter about every 10 years, so we don’t want to put in all new meters now and be faced with replacing all 1,000 meters at the same time again in 10 years.”

Currently the water department has already installed approximately 500 automated meters over the past several years. To make these meters compatible with the electronic reader, a transmitter must be installed on each unit at a cost of $105 for each piece.

The remaining 500 plus water meters must be purchased at a cost of $190 ($85 meter and $105 transmitter).

“Right now we have 50-percent of the city covered by automated meters,” Howard stated. “Eventually, everyone will have a remote meter, meaning they will not be bothered each month when we come to get a reading.”

The meter reader will no longer have to enter the home to take a meter reading. Nor will the employee have to worry about pumping water out of the meter pit or trying to find the pit when there is a snow covering.

“That is obviously one of the biggest benefits of this system,” Howard said. “We won’t be bothering residents to read their meters. The handheld unit can pick up the signal from as far away as 800-feet, in most circumstances the worker won’t even have to get out of the truck.”

The water superintendent pointed out that this will save the city a tremendous amount of man hours. Currently it takes approximately three weeks to record the meter readings for the city. Howard said the new system could cut that time down to a couple of hours each month.

The time savings is just one of the benefits. The automated system will cut down on billing mistakes and meter re-reads, as the hand-held unit transfers the data directly into the city’s billing software, eliminating the need to manually enter the numbers each month.

The new system also will streamline the billing process. Previously the customer’s bill may have been read on the first day of the month and then not until the 15th day on the next month. With the new, quicker system, billing will be more consistent with a standard 30-day measurement period.

The convenience issue can not be overlooked for the reading process either. Snow in the winter, and rain in the spring make it difficult to manually read water meters that are located in tiles or meter pits in the yard. In February, with a foot of snow on the ground, the meter reader would have to use a metal detector to locate the pit cover and then would have to shovel off the snow to get to the meter to take a reading. They then would have to re-bury the pit to insure the water line did not freeze up. In a wet spring, the reader often has to use a “pit-pump” to remove water from the pit so that the meter can be read.

Now the meter reader simply will have to walk or drive past the property and receive the electronic signal.

That also will help the meter reader avoid inconveniencing the property owner. They won’t have to worry about tracking mud into the home or avoiding the dog.

The city is moving forward with a Census model meter. Not only does the same company manufacture all the components of the meter, the units offer a 10-year battery warranty with extended coverage up to 20 years.

At the special meeting, the city council agreed to purchase 500 new automated electric meters, which include the transmitter, at a cost of $120 per unit. The city received a $20 discount per unit for buying in quantity. The mass purchase also allowed the city to receive the $14,500 package including the meter reader, a new touch-reader, software and the docking/recharging base for the units at a cost of just $2,000.

“We used to start reading meters on the first of the month and wouldn’t get done until the 15th or the 20th,” Howard said. “We had 10 different meter books and now this one little hand-held machine will replace them all.”

The new machine will not immediately replace any city employees. Howard said the saved man hours will be put to work elsewhere in the department. However he noted that when members of the department began retiring or left the job for other positions, that the city could consider leaving those openings vacant because of the time savings generated by the new system.

“Ultimately with all the time it saves the two departments, the improved accuracy and eventually the salary savings, this will definitely pay for itself over time,” Howard said.

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