Maumee installs two-way electronic water metersWritten by Dave Willinger | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When one of your longtime suppliers tells you they are halting production of key components used in your city’s water distribution system, a mechanical infrastructure that requires on average 40 to 50 replacement meters per year, what are you supposed to do?
If you are Joe Camp, Maumee’s director of public service, you and your team put out a request for proposals for a new metering system — and you snatch up enough of those last replacement parts to see you through the transition.
That request went out in 2012. Today, licensed and bonded subcontractors are crisscrossing Maumee’s 11.2 square miles, installing new two-way electronic water meters in homes and businesses. Those new meters, from North Carolina-based Mueller Systems, use a radio frequency transmitter to send data via an external system of “repeaters” and “collectors” mounted on city property to a secure, central computer hosted by the manufacturer.
At his office beneath the landmark water tower on Dussel Drive, Camp is able to pull up on his desktop computer hourly data from daily readings transmitted from the nearly 1,000 newly installed and functioning meters.
That up-to-date data has obvious advantages. Assistant Water Superintendent Todd Walborn related how the computerized system alerted him one morning in early March to a residence where 20-gallon-an-hour spikes in water usage had been recorded the night before. Walborn contacted the homeowner and arranged a visit. On site he found a toilet in the home’s basement that had an internal leak. With the old system, based on quarterly meter readings for residences, that leak, if undetected over three months, could have amounted to as much as 45,000 gallons of water wasted, city officials calculated, not to mention a whopping water bill for the unsuspecting homeowner.
The price paid by the City of Maumee for the new system was $2.6 million, of which $1.3 million came from the sanitary sewer account, Camp said. Maumee is in the process of issuing 10-year bonds to cover the balance. In addition, the city will pay Mueller Systems $19,000 annually for hosting the meter data at a secure facility and Mueller Systems will also operate the computerized system that Maumee officials say will improve their ability to manage the municipal water infrastructure while at the same time allowing customers to budget and conserve water through its Web portal. According to Camp, the annual fee “is a very good deal for us.”
Camp said the installation of the new meters — 6,500 in total — is expected to be complete sometime this fall. At that time the customer Web portal will be activated. That feature allows customers to use their computers, smartphones or other device to monitor their water usage as a way to spot leaks and help conserve water in general. For example, Camp suggested, the system can alert a customer if water is being used in their absence, which could mean a leaky toilet or a sneaky neighbor stealing water from an outdoor spigot.
The Mueller metering system now being installed represents an upgrade that effectively leapfrogged other technological improvements in use around the country, Walborn said, including handheld electronic meter readers and so-called “drive-by” systems, both of which still require labor. Maume’s new system will put an end to water meter readers in the city. Still, no employees will lose their jobs, Camp emphasized — just a part of their job descriptions.
When asked whether there were any health concerns associated with the automated system, which uses 900 megahertz radio frequency signals once a day to transmit data from the installed devices, Camp said city officials looked into the matter and are confident no risks are involved. He referred a reporter to a World Health Organization fact sheet issued in 2006 that concludes: “Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”
Maumee’s new system is “the best way to go,” agreed Don Moline, Toledo’s commissioner of the Department of Public Utilities. Moline, whose department sells Maumee its water — more than 745 million gallons last year — said Toledo also has switched about one-fifth of its 100,000 water meters to the “radio read” type.
While Toledo also serves a number of outlying districts as far afield as Wood and Fulton counties, and Monroe, Mich., Moline said Maumee is one of the city’s biggest water customers. “We have a longterm and good relationship with the City of Maumee,” Moline told Toledo Free Press. Indeed, Moline confirmed Maumee is in the second half of a 40-year contract with Toledo for bulk water. Long contracts are the norm in a sector requiring such extensive infrastructure, Moline said.
In today’s era of advancing technologies, Maumee’s now state-of-the-art system has another built-in advantage: It is upgradable. Mueller Systems Vice President Matt Thomas said his firm, which has been in the water metering business since 1859 and has been making electronic metering systems since the 1990s, is already developing add-on features such as acoustic network leak detection and pressure management.
Thomas has spent more than three decades in the sector. He said Mueller Systems supplies utilities in some 500 cities across America and counts among its customers American Water, the largest publicly traded water company in the United States.
With this single technological upgrade, Maumee’s water meter readings will go from hen scratchings in meter reader notebooks to a mainframe in a secure facility in Atlanta, serviced by multiple powergrids and “mirrored,” or backed up, by a second facility in San Francisco. “Utilities take security very seriously,” Thomas said.
Maintenance of the Mueller equipment in Maumee will be done by Camp’s team. The meters come with a 10-year, “bumper-to-bumper” warranty and an additional 10-year pro-rated warranty, Thomas said.
Camp, who likes to say he works with 2 million gallons of water sitting above his head, said Maumee currently only bills for 90 percent of the water it purchases, meaning that 10 percent of the water is lost to leaks or “slow” meters. While Camp said the 90 percent figure has been deemed acceptable in the industry, he expects the new system to boost that to 99 percent. Camp allowed some residents may end up with a bigger water bill but only because with the new meters they will be paying for all the water they are using. When mechanical meters get old they tend to slow down, that is, allow more water flow than they register. Camp said it is only fair to pay for what you use. The new system offers customers ways to monitor that usage and help them conserve by alerting them in a timely fashion of usage spikes.