Tests of new water meter telemetry successful but …
by Staff Writer
by Frank DeLoache
CHARLOTTE – Charlotte’s test of the newest remote measurement and reporting technology for water meters has proved successful at explaining water bills – and restoring confidence in the system itself.
But the sophisticated, new electronic telemetry equipment is posing a new challenge for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities staff, which must interpret almost too much information on customer water accounts, according to Regina Cousar, the utility’s continuous improvement officer. The engineer sat down at the utility’s main headquarters off Billy Graham Parkway recently to summarize the results of two pilot projects.
This month, the utility will start a second pilot project on another manufacturer’s version of the new-generation transmitters in the Peninsula community in Cornelius and Faires Farm subdivision in University City.
For more than a year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities officials have spent a great deal of time, particularly in north Mecklenburg, answering questions about water bills. Why the sudden high bills, with no apparent explanation?
Among homeowners across the county, they became known as spike bills. The higher bills are often a mystery at first and sometimes require extended research, but utility officials usually find a logical reason for the higher bill, Cousar said.
Some of the current problems appears to come from the first-generation automated meter readers – called 50Ws – that enabled a utility truck to ride down any Mecklenburg County street and collect billing information from the transmitters with a computer in the truck. This provided a dramatic savings for the utility, which dropped from a corps of 36 meter-readers walking monthly routes – to two employees riding trucks, Cousar said.
But the early meter transmitters developed problems where the transmitter wire connects with the register, which counts the water going to a home. Over time, the plastic wire could crack, and in damp, sometimes water-logged, meter boxes, the transmitters would give inaccurate numbers, often lower than the amount actually used.
Then, when the transmitter next reported water use accurately, usually after it dried out or was replace, a customer might notice a sudden spike – or catch-up – in his or her water bill. Last summer, and independent audit of more than 9,000 meters provide utility staff enough information to diagnose the likely problem and set up the current test of the new transmitters.
One problem with the old electronic transmitters: They provided only one figure – a month’s worth of water used.
“We knew how much you used in a month, but that’s not good enough for a homeowner trying to figure out where they have a problem,” Cousar said. Think of it like having an entire encyclopedia but not being able to look at individual topics inside.
But with the debut of the newest generation of transmitter – called a data-logger – the utility and homeowners are able to look at the details of each month’s water bill.
During the summer, two tests of the latest generation of 100W electronic transmitters have enabled the utility and customers to see their water use by the hour. Those advanced meters, as well as the utility’s willingness to call in leak detection specialists, has gone a long way to settling tough water-bill complaints, according to Cousar, who is managing the pilot projects and helping guide the utility through the revolution in water-bill technology.
The utility is testing the new 100W electronic telemetry in the River Run Country Club in Davidson, which also was the source of much customer unrest a year ago, and the Hidden Valley community in Charlotte. In two cases this summer, River Run homeowners saw their bills increase and were convinced, after calling in a plumber, that they did not have a leak.
But because the 100W transmitters actually capture a homeowner’s water use hour-by-hour, utility officials were able to show the homeowners their water almost never dropped to zero, signaling a constant flow somewhere. In one case where water use did stop once or twice a day, utility officials and the homeowners determined that new low-flow toilets were the source of the leak. The leak only stopped when the homeowner happened to jiggle the toilet handle, fully closing the valve, Cousar said.
“We’ve seen a lot of issues with the new low-flow toilets” and leaking valves, she added.
In both cases, the homeowners thanked the utility for its help, corrected the problem and paid their bills.
At a recent Davidson town board meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Laurie Venzon credited the new transmitters tested in River Run with resolving complaints.
In nine other cases, the utility – unable to find the source of the leak – has called in a leak-detection specialist with sophisticated equipment. In each case, the specialist located the leak, even digging up an old irrigation line one homeowner didn’t know she had, Cousar said.
But the new 100W transmitters, which have their own mini-computers, come with their own set of challenges, Cousar said:
• First, the transmitters are now proving much more information than the utility really needs for every customer. The information is useful when solving a single homeowner’s complaint, but data from that homeowner is part of a much larger block sent to the computer in the utility truck.
So much, in fact, that the truck can’t drive faster than 10 mph to collect it, whereas the trucks can drive 35 mph collecting data from the current 50W and 60W transmitters. Slowed down that much, the trucks can’t cover the county in a 30- to 33-day billing cycle. On the small pilot projects, utility officials can adjust and stay current, but switching to the new transmitters countywide could throw off the whole system.
• By getting such massive blocks of hour-by-hour data, utility staff have to spend too much time finding the specific problems in each household. Utility officials are trying to adjust their software now, Cousar said, but they’re not even close to providing hour-by-hour data to every customer who asks.
“We’re getting volumes of data coming out, but what do we do with it?” she said.
The computer staff hasn’t even determined a cost for breaking down the information into more useful bits.
• If the new 100W data-loggers could transmit the information directly to a utility data center, that would solve the collection problem. But the utility would have to either create a system of repeaters to capture and relay the signal, or it would have to piggyback on someone else’s repeater system, Cousar said.
Right now, that’s an expensive prospect.
“It’s a lot more complicated than just sticking new hardware in the hole,” Cousar said. “We have to be good stewards of the resources we have. … We don’t want to adopt something that consumes more resources than we’re already using.”
At the same time, Cousar and utility executives know they have to get rid of the first-generation 50W and slightly better 60W transmitters. Though the utility has accelerated replacement of the most-unreliable 50Ws, those transmitters are still operating at about 120,000 of the utility’s 250,000 residential customers’ meter boxes. The remaining 130,000 customers have 60W transmitters.
“We’re still taking baby steps,” Cousar said, and she asked impatient customers to think of the first generation, bulky, unreliable cellphone they once used compared to the smart phones of today.
The utility still has a lot of the unreliable transmitters, but “we’re so excited” that the solution to those problems is available, Cousar said. Now, the utility staff needs time to test and work out the bugs and costs of the new system.
The pilot tests “show at the very minimum that we can provide answers when we have problem bills,” she said.
Find more information about the utility’s efforts at its website, www.cmutilities.com.