City ponders whether to expand digital water meter use

City ponders whether to expand digital water meter use
City Manager Jarrett Atkinson
City Manager Jarrett Atkinson

Amarillo got a start some years ago on developing a high-tech system of reading water meters.

Recent publicity surrounding the city's practice of estimating water use and the fallout surrounding some major discrepancies in residential water bills has fueled considerable discussion at City Hall about whether to expand the use of the new water meter-reading system.

The city has some hurdles to clear and some issues to clear up before proceeding, according to Mayor Paul Harpole and City Manager Jarrett Atkinson.

Beginning in 2007, the city installed about 5,200 digital "remote-read" meters in some neighborhoods in the city, Atkinson said. The meters were deployed in a few older neighborhoods that lacked alleys along the back of homes. Also, the city had the issue of what Atkinson referred to as "problem animals," meaning aggressive dogs that would react badly if someone came onto the property to read the water meter.

The digital devices allow meter-readers to sit in their vehicles and read the water meter, which transmits the amount of water used electronically to a device carried inside the meter reader's vehicle. "The handheld device is activated" when the driver approaches the home, Atkinson, "and it takes over. The reader gets the information needed and then he puts the device back to sleep."

Will the city expand the use of these devices? That depends on several factors, Atkinson and Harpole said.

One is the cost of the digital devices, which are significantly more expensive than the analog meters used in most neighborhoods throughout the city, they said.

Atkinson said the "conventional meter" costs, as of 2014, $31.58 apiece; the digital meter's cost totals $174.16 per unit. How many of these digital meters would need to be installed? Atkinson looked down at his paper containing data and said the city must install 57,646 of the digital devices, at a cost of $14,659,501.

The city is investigating the issue on a number of fronts, Atkinson said. The city is looking at whether the savings the digital meters could produce would offset the outlay in investment of the installation, he said. "The digital meters have this ability to help with customer service," he said, meaning that residents would be able to monitor their water use more easily during any current billing period.

The digital meters don't last as long as the standard analog meters, Atkinson noted. "The batteries on these devices would need to be replaced regularly," he said. The digital batteries have a lifespan of about six years, he said, compared to a "20- to 30-year lifespan for the analog meter." The city would replace the batteries, not the entire digital unit," Atkinson said.

There's been considerable controversy in recent days involving the city's water billing system. Atkinson said some things happened all at once to exacerbate the matter.

It terminated eight of the city's 11 meter readers, Atkinson said, while not going into the reason for the termination. "We were forced to do more estimates" on residential water use as a result, Atkinson said. "We have been doing these estimations for years," he said, "but this year, the methodology was flawed,"causing some water bills to reflect enormous increases over "normal water use." 

Harpole described the digital devices as "using smart-phone technology." It enables drivers to get readings on the meters without ever having to enter people's property. 

He noted that some have criticized the digital reading devices as an "invasion of privacy," which said categorically is "just plain silly. And you can say that the mayor said that. It's silly.

"These devices don't invade anyone's privacy. We're not trying to gather information on people," Harpole added. "We're just trying to get an efficient reading" of people's water consumption.

Atkinson said the city has examined whether to team up with Xcel Energy in its meter-reading effort, but hasn't made a decision on how – or whether – to proceed.

Atkinson said the city's consideration of changes in its meter-reading policy might include the use of garbage-collection vehicles that pick up trash from Dumpsters in alleys. He explained that if the city were to install digital devices throughout Amarillo, the trash trucks could be equipped with devices to record the water use while drivers are picking up people's trash.

The city manager noted that a small fraction of neighborhoods ask residents to take their trash to oversized "communal" trash bins, which are emptied by private trash-collecting contractors. Harpole mentioned Tascosa County Country Club as one of those neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods could not be included in any kind of team-approach strategy employing the city's waste management department.

Harpole also mentioned how the city might develop a billing system similar to what's employed by Xcel Energy and Atmos Energy, which allow consumers to pay their bills each month with equal monthly payments. The utilities total a consumer's annual energy use and then divide the annual amount by 12 months, then bill customers evenly each month throughout the year. "We could possibly do something like with our water bills," Atkinson said, adding that the city would "true up" the totals during a particular month, meaning the city would compare actual water use with what it estimated was used. 

The customer could either have to make a "balloon payment" to make up the difference, or could receive a credit for unused water, he said.

The city "can't change the current alleys," Harpole said. A more efficient meter-reading system using the digital devices would create a "drive-by system" of collecting information on customers' water use, he said.

Both men agreed, though, that the price tag for expanding the digital system is high. Harpole said, "We just have to find out where we're going to get the money."