Piggott MLWS Installing New Generation Meters

Thursday, August 6, 2015
The new radio read meters being installed by MLWS. The electric meters look the same as regular digital units, while the small gray device is the ERT (Encoder Receiver Transmitter) which is attached to a water meter (right) to relay the readings.(TD photo/Tim Blair)

In an effort to be more efficient, and save customers money, the Piggott Municipal Light, Water and Sewer Department is currently transitioning to new meters for both electric and water service.

The new devices are commonly referred to as "radio read meters" and are equipped with a transmitter which allows the readings to be taken by merely driving down the street where the customer lives.

"We had been looking at this for awhile," noted utilities administrator Brian Haley. "A lot of the industry has been making the switch to systems which could be read by way of the Internet, or some of the co-ops have it where they can read through their existing lines but we felt the radio read system was the cheapest solution."

He also observed the early systems lacked some reliability. "And, while it is a good idea I didn't want to rush into it because at first the technology just wasn't there," he added. "But it has improved a lot the past few years."

Haley noted what prompted the city to move forward with the effort was the prospect of replacing the current system and the related costs. "What pushed us to go ahead at this time are the Itron hand-held units are guys currently use," he added. "Each one cost about $5,000, and the company stopped offering maintenance on them two years ago, but they went ahead and carried us through the end of 2014."

He explained the city would need at least two of the units, and a spare, at a cost of around $15,000, which made the new system much more attractive for the long term.

"The company we decided to go with offered us a deal and for every 144 of the ERTs (Encoder Receiver Transmitter), or the part that transmits the information from the meter, we'd get a free hand-held," he explained. "So we got two initially and another one when we purchased the Itron system, so we saved about $15,000 by switching to it now."

Currently there are about 2,200 customers of the Piggott MLWS, and an estimated 120 of the new electric meters have already been installed, along with about 200 of the water meters. According to Haley, the city will save money with each new one added.

"We always operate a little short-handed, and this system will offer us the chance to basically get all the meters read in just a few hours and one of the biggest advantages is eliminating re-reads," he explained. "It takes out the factor of human error. When the guys are out reading meters they're punching in numbers and, although the handhelds do have a range which should alert them to a big discrepancy, there is always the chance for human error."

Haley said any great discrepancy or other instance would prompt someone else to go back to the location and re-read the meter, costing the city time and money. "Someone may have their car parked over the meter, or something like that, but then we have to send someone else out to read it again and a five-minute job turns into a 20-minute effort and there's also more paperwork. So it should take care of the issue of re-reads and remove the human equation."

Haley said the advantage of simplifying the system will also be reflected in costs, "and when the guys aren't out having to re-read meters they have more time to do their jobs and we can operate on less manpower."

He also explained the benefits of eventually having all the meters read on the same day. "We start reading meters on the first of the month and try to have them all read by the 10th," he explained, "but with weekends and the occasional holiday there can be a big difference in having a 30 or 32 day billing period, and a 35 or 36 day period. It does away with a lot of that."

Nationwide, many utilities are making the change to such meters, although more of the electric units are being placed as opposed to water meters. "We found that most of our re-reads were for water, so we made the decision to replace both," he added. "But of course it will take us longer to switch out the water meters since they cost about twice as much as the electric meters, and take three times longer to change them out."

Installation of the meters is currently being done by route, with the first of the electric meters installed in the area of town south of Main Street and east of the railroad tracks. Haley also noted many of the older electric meters are also scheduled to be refurbished and retrofitted with an ERT.

"We'd like to have the meters for the entire city electric system upgraded in the coming year, but the water meters are going to take longer," Haley surmised.

The process of reading the meters is relatively simple as city employees only have to get within close proximity to access the information. "There is an adjustment on the ERTs, but the more you turn it up the quicker it uses up the lithium battery," Haley explained. "Basically, there is a unit in one of our trucks and all you have to do is drive down the street and it will read all the meters. Most of them you need to get within a block to get a reading and the system will tell you if one of them has not been read, so you can go back by if needed."

He said the water meters are a bit more difficult to access, due to their location, but the majority of the electric meters can be read in a two-to-three block area.

The new digital electric meters are also expected to be a bit more accurate and are tested prior to use to insure proper readings. "The old meters were mechanical and would become worn after awhile, which would actually cause them to run slow," he explained. "We have never had a meter which read too fast -- that's just now how they work -- but these new digital meters are very accurate."

The same holds true for the water meters currently in use. "We have some meters which have been out there in service for 20 to 30 years, and they do have a tendency to get worn and not read all the water used," he added. "So I imagine as we install the new water meters we'll see an increase in income since we'll have higher usage numbers."

The benefits of the new meters for customers of the local utility not only include better accuracy, and convenience, but the effort is also expected to save thousands of dollars in labor over the course of the coming months and years, effectively helping to keep rates low.

"Our goal, when the system is complete, is to be able to fully read all the water and electric meters in just a couple of hours, and be done for the month," Haley said of the long range plan.

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