Letter: On Water Meters, The City Should Explore Upgrading the Existing System Before Committing to a Full Replacement

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(Letter to the Editor)

Dear Council,

I fully agree with the City’s choice to finally move ahead with meter reading through the use of AMI reading technology. However, many aspects should be investigated further, including the strengths, weaknesses, and timing for the implementation of any meter upgrades.

The City’s current meter manufacturer is Neptune Technology Group. They are a world-class meter company, in which the City currently has a significant infrastructure investment. Throwing that existing investment out will have the unseen, but very real, effect of adding a significant burden to all utility ratepayers when coupled to the 1.7 million dollar change-out fees.

The City’s current meter company has had the capability of setting up a reading system with AMI technology for quite some time. Neptune, the City’s meter company since the mid-90s, has this capability also, as do most meter manufacturers in today’s market, including services that have leak detection, reverse flows, customer tracking, etc.

The problem has always been the indecisiveness on the part of the City.  Neptune representatives would repeatedly encourage the City to incorporate upgrades to its meter reading system, but those upgrades were never adopted. As a result, employees such as myself would install the current innovations in water metering while still reading the older versions that preceded them.

Saline currently has many meters capable of sending AMI data and many will require upgrades to be able to send data. However, with a well-managed goal, city employees or others can change out older meters and Neptune will finally be able to install the network to read all the meters.

The proposed change-out by the company, Master Meter, would install meters using ultrasonic meters. Ultrasonic meter technology has been around for a while and most meter companies carry them, including Neptune. Their benefit is that they have no moving parts so, in theory, they can run indefinitely, or at least for a very long time.

What then is the downside? It is the sealed “Battery." Today, battery technology is still lagging behind the technology that houses it, and while you would have a meter that could potentially run for thirty to forty years, its Achilles’ heel is a sealed battery that will last for only about one-third of the meter’s lifespan and cannot be replaced without removing the entire meter.

The problem with installing Master Meter’s ultrasonic meters is that the City would need to remove and dispose of the entire meter every time the battery runs low, rather than replacing it separately, which is the case with the current Neptune meters. Additionally, since the batteries will have a closely timed failure rate from one meter to another, all the meters will need to be changed out en masse before battery failure begins. This would result in recurring major change-outs and associated lump-sum costs for future ratepayers.

A big advantage Saline has over most other cities is having the R.O. (reverse osmosis) Water plant. We distribute water without the high mineral content that contributes to wear on moving parts. Since the R.O. plant came online, the number of “stopped meters” has been almost eliminated. They run like a collection of Swiss watches. Also, the battery used for sending out meter readings is separate, so it’s “not” a throwaway meter.

Debating the merits of one brand or type over another can go on endlessly but in all actuality, one really does not need to understand the mechanics of water meters at all. The overarching issue is a fiscal one: it is about going down a road that ties the hands of the future city council and will significantly impact ratepayers. How many times have you lamented the fact that former council action has tied your own hands, obligating you to continue with a pattern previously set? 

In closing, more information is needed from Neptune to better understand how the current system can be optimized to fulfill the needs of the City. Furthermore, any large-scale upgrade should take into consideration how the City would be tethered to the constraints of the current meter battery technology and the fiscal burden of increased change-outs.

In the interest of Saline’s citizens, I believe you should ask Neptune to do a presentation to the Council on what they can and can’t do to enhance the current system, and why they might be a better option for the City to retain them. Since this issue is a non-budgeted item, the City still has the time to consider all options to make a well-informed decision. If at that time if you feel a total change is appropriate, then you will have done your fiscal duty towards your ratepayers and have the documentation to prove you did your due diligence.

Saline’s utility rates are going up on the sewer side with upcoming treatment plant upgrades, so anything you can do to keep the water rates from doing the same is going to honor the investments of home and business owners who will most feel the impacts of these decisions.

Sincerely,

Erik Grossman

(Editor's note: Erik Grossman retired from the City of Saline after a long career in the Department of Public Works)

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