OWASA currently reads its electronic water meters by driving around town, once a month, with hand-held radio transmitters. The utility also has older meters that must be read manually by visual inspection which is physically taxing on our staff. Both types of meters read in 1,000 gallon increments.
A recently concluded feasibility study gave the OWASA Board of Directors the assurance that moving to an automated collection system, called AMI or Advanced Metering Infrastructure, will improve service for less cost than is currently budgeted for upgrading the old meters. The AMI project would have two components. First, it would replace the older meters with electronic meters but on a faster schedule than is currently budgeted. Then all of the meters would have antennae installed to connect them to to a dedicated wireless network that feeds data directly into the OWASA billing system.
The benefits of the AMI project include reducing fuel usage and staff injuries, providing near-real time data on customer water use and giving the customer service staff the tools needed to notify customers of water leaks from the central office. Other benefits include improved safety, reduced labor costs, and eventually allowing us the option to charge for actual consumption rather than rounding up to the next 1,000 gallons.
The bulk of the feedback received from customers so far include concerns over costs, the perceived health effects of radio waves, impact on staff jobs, and to a lesser extent, concerns about privacy.
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▪ Costs. The estimated cost for this project is $6 million. The feasibility study estimates that this investment will save roughly $325,000 per year through operational efficiencies. After four years of budget cutting in order avoid rate increases, I don’t believe this savings will result in lowered rates (that’s just my opinion, I don’t speak for the full board), but this savings does give the board more flexibility and confidence that we can continue to offer superior service without passing those costs off to our customers.
▪ Health effects. The meters will connect to the wifi network several times per day rather than once a month, emitting low frequency radio waves at each connection. Unlike electric and gas meters, which are attached to the house and in close proximity to living spaces, water meters are generally located at the curb. Residents concerned about the health effects of the radio waves emitted by the meters will not be any closer to the meter than they are to their neighbors’ appliances. Independent engineering tests have shown that RF EMF levels from AMI meters are lower than the levels from other common household items.
▪ Staffing. One of the most frequently expressed concerns has focused on job layoffs. Our consultant estimates that eight staff positions (meter readers) would be eliminated if we move forward with this project. However, the board of directors and executive staff have committed to reassigning those individuals to other positions within the organization and reducing the number of staff over time by not backfilling vacated positions. The current staff members in those positions that I’ve spoken with support this change and look forward to less physically taxing work.
▪ Privacy. The only data that will be transmitted from the meters to OWASA will be a meter code, time and date, and consumption data. No potentially sensitive information, such as address or customer name, will be included in the transmission. Furthermore, the data that is transmitted will be encrypted.
If you wish to provide input on this project, send email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, call 919-968-4421, or send written comments to OWASA, Attn: AMI Feedback, 400 Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro, NC 27510.
You may also provide feedback directly to the Board of Directors by attending the March 24 meeting at the Chapel Hill Town Hall (starts at 7 pm). The board is scheduled to make a decision at the that meeting.
Terri Buckner is a member of the OWASA Board of Directors. She can be contacted at email@example.com.