WEU’s ‘smart meters’ detect leaks, generate savings

West Escambia Utilities, the supplier of water to local homes and businesses, is now employing computerized water meters that can detect potential leaks, in turn lowering the cost of reading meters and saving the utility’s customers significant amounts of money.

The new meters have been in place for several months, but WEU Manager Kenny Smith said utility personnel are still learning how to most effectively use them to their greatest potential.

“It’s just like phones,” Smith said. “You’ve got regular phones, you’ve got flip phones and then you have smart phones. These are smart meters, and they are unbelievably smart. It’s kind of like a new phone — the longer you have it, the more you find out you can do with it. These meters are the same way.”

But, like any new gadget or device, there were issues to deal with at the onset of the project, which actually began more than a year ago.

“First, we had to get them all in and get all the bugs out of them,” the WEU manager said. “Now that they’ve all been in for a year or so, we can drive by and read most of the meters. Since we installed them, we have put antennas on our water tanks, so pretty much every meter here in town, we can read from this office.”

The water supplier’s most significant savings to date have come from the decrease in manpower required to read the water meters inside Atmore and just outside the city limits.

“Before we put these meters in it took us two and a half weeks every month, with two guys, to read all the meters,” Smith explained. “Since we’ve gone to the drive-by, we’ve cut it down to probably four days. Now, with the radio, we can read the majority of meters here, so we’ve been able to cut it down to about two days a month.”

He pointed out that the new devices don’t work at every location, but the number is relatively minimal.

“Some larger meters, these won’t work on,” he said. “So, on the first day (of reading) we go around and use the old technology to read those. On the second day I hit the computer button, and we’ve read the 4,000 that it does work on.”

One of the system’s shortcomings is that it can’t yet be used in remote locations, where signals from radio antennas won’t reach.

“It applies to the city limits and very close by,” Smith said. “We can’t do Robinsonville; we can’t do Nokomis, because we don’t have antennas reaching to those areas. We still have to drive by and read those. Plans are to put some antennas up in those areas and see if we can get a report back.”

He noted that the new meters are expensive, and that the resident or business owner is ultimately responsible for making sure they are not damaged.

“If somebody tears one up, we hold them responsible,” he said. “It’s our product, but it’s on their premises, and they’re responsible for not letting them get torn up. If they damage this meter, it costs in the neighborhood of $500 to $700, plus the boxes are $100 each, so it adds up.”

The savings to customers comes when the “smart meters” detect a steady flow of water — roughly the same amount going through the meter hour by hour over a 24-hour period — that exceeds normal usage at a particular site.

“About a month ago, we started doing the leak program,” Smith pointed out. “The meter sends a leak report to my computer, and we call to let you know that you have a potential leak or you left a faucet dripping outside. That way, you can fix the leak or call a plumber to fix it.”

WEU even adjusts bills for those leaks, if the customer takes care of the problem in a reasonable amount of time. However, he explained, the adjustment is a limited benefit.

“We’re probably one of the few towns around that still do water adjustments for leaks,” Smith said. “We still do one adjustment for a customer per year. We’re going to be limiting the adjustments, though. If I call you on (a specific date) and let you know that you have a leak, I will not do an adjustment past that date. I have made you aware, but if you happen to neglect that, it’s not my fault, because I’ve let you know.”

However, if a person is notified on a Friday by phone message or door-hanger that a potential leak exists but the person is out of town and can’t handle the problem before Monday, that fact will be taken into consideration when an adjustment is considered.

Smith said that notifications of potential leaks is a service not offered by most area utilities, but installation of the new meters allows WEU to provide a degree of customer service — and savings — that it could not offer before.

“I don’t know of another utility around here that offers this type of preventive maintenance,” he said before checking himself. “Well, it’s not exactly preventive maintenance because the leak is already there. But the customers don’t have to wait until they get a high water bill to find out they have a leak. That’s the way it used to be. We didn’t have a way to help them, but with these new meters we now have the ability to do that.

“It’s really neat, really awesome, that we’re able to do this for our customers. I tell everybody that I want to make money, but I want to make it the right way. I don’t want them wasting money on leaks; I want them to spend that money on their kids, grandkids or whatever.”

Another savings to the utility, he pointed out, is the virtual elimination of tampering, which is a criminal offense. The meters, which have a 20-year battery, alert Smith to possible tampering and have beacons that allow for tracking of those that have been removed and discarded.

“We found one that was out in the middle of some woods,” he said. “The guy who put it there was on probation, so now he’s back in jail. Don’t go into that water box; it’s ours.”

The utility manager also pointed out that he and other WEU personnel are still learning how to more effectively use the smart meters, again using the telephone analogy to make his point.

“In the future, we’ll be able to cut the water off (at a location where the bill is not paid) from my office,” he said. “This is a step process, and I’m sure we’ll always be learning on it. It’s pretty much like cell phones, very intelligent. So far, it’s working real well. It’s helping us; it’s helping the customer.”