by Frank DeLoache

DAVIDSON – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities officials plan to test the newest generation of water-meter transmitter equipment in River Run and one other Mecklenburg County community.

On Monday night, Charlotte City Council approved the $234,470 pilot project to install the new 100W meter transmitters and registers in the Davidson country club and the Hidden Valley community in University City.

The 100W transmitters are a “first step toward real-time, continuous meter reading,” utility officials said in a news release. The 100Ws capture and store water usage data at a more frequent interval, and water customers could eventually have access to far more information about their water use, conceivably in the same month or week they are using the water. Officials call the 100Ws “the latest, most sophisticated meter transmitter equipment available on the market.

“100Ws are newer and more expensive technology,” Barry Gullet, utility director, said in a news release. “But they offer tremendous opportunities to improve the way we serve customers.”

But utility spokeswoman Karen Whichard cautioned that homeowners involved in the pilot study won’t be able to call the utility and ask about their water use that week. Homeowners probably won’t know a change has occurred, she added. Instead, utility officials want to see how the newest transmitters fit into the utility’s data-processing system.

Utility officials chose River Run and Hidden Valley because those communities were part of a meter equipment audit last summer, so the utility has baseline data. Also the communities have different water-use patterns, with River Run using much more for irrigation.

“The new transmitter … is a step forward to get better billing accuracy with improved data on water usage,” Ron Charbonneau, a River Run resident and the only citizen member of the utility’s Advisory Committee, said. “The meter measures consumption on an hourly basis for a period of up to 40 days. … If a bill reveals higher usage than normal, the records will show when the high usage accrued. The customer can then match that with usage activity.  So high usage every other day at 4 a.m. might match when irrigation was turned on or a weekend high usage might reflect having guests.”

Since the system is relatively new, Charbonneau praised utility officials for conducting the pilot study first. The utility needs to develop “a good test protocol that will collect credible data on accuracy and faults and have the necessary safeguards to protect the customers in the event that the meters don’t meet expectation.”

“I think that’s definitely a good move,” Mickey Pettus, president of the River Run Property Owners Association, said Monday, March 28. “We’ve definitely had issues with the meters and their functions. For the homeowners who have experienced those problems, this move recognizes that there was a problem and that the utility is doing something productively about it. I applaud the effort.

“My only issue with the utility is that it is taking so long to address all the issues around excessive water bills. … I do think that we’ve got to work through the process with the utility to make this thing work out. I’m pleased that they are going to test this out in our area.”

The electronic equipment that reads the mechanical meter and the transmitter that sends the information to passing utility trucks have been subject to much criticism since north Mecklenburg residents first began questioning unexplained high water bills in fall 2009. A north Mecklenburg citizens task force that looked into all aspects of the utility noted that older 50W models had a high failure rate by industry standards and recommended replacing them immediately.

Utility officials say an independent audit of the transmitters found they are reliable. But Gullet has said the transmitters are vulnerable to dampness when the concrete meter boxes become covered by dirt or bushes. And since residents across Charlotte questioned high bills, Gullet approved the creation of an appeal process through which customers can ask the utility to examine a sudden high bill. In 2009, when the questions arose, the utility was replacing the older meters with the next generation of 60W transmitters only as problems with a unit surfaced. But under new director Gullet, the utility has sped up replacement of the 50W transmitters.

Currently, about half of the utility’s approximately 250,000 residential water meters use the 60W transmitter and half use the 50Ws. During the pilot-study, manufacturer Itron will accelerate the replacement of 50W transmitters with 60W transmitters at no charge to the utility.

This agreement will replace about half of the remaining 50W transmitters, and the utility expects to sign a second agreement to finish removing the 50Ws.

“During the last several years we’ve replaced 50Ws with 60Ws as needed. This agreement speeds things up,” Gullet said. “The meter audit confirmed our meter equipment functions properly. The audit also supported our vendor’s findings that the 60W, with its stronger radio signal, transmits the data signal at a better rate than the 50W. So we’ve worked with Itron to accelerate the upgrade process while seizing the opportunity to test the 100Ws.”