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Smart meters will drive up customer bills, but not necessarily cut down on billing errors

The high-tech, high-cost meters are great for detecting minute flows of water. But other cities have found they are subject to frustrating computer glitches.

Sensus-iperl

By measuring every last drop of water coming into a household, this smart meter manufacturer promises water utilities with plenty of fresh revenue.

Photo by: Sensus Metering Systems

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says smart water meters will yield “more accurate” bills for customers long frustrated by water billing errors, what’s left unsaid is that the new meters will also increase residential water bills.

The new meters will employ technology that better records low-flow water usage by households, a key to charging more per customer. “By measuring every single drip every time” with smart meters, one manufacturer brags, a water utility can increase its revenues even when rates remain the same.

According to Dynis LLC – the front runner of the yet-unannounced meter award despite a bid $100 million more than its competitor – its Sensus iPERL meters are calibrated to measure as little as 1/32 gallon per minute of flow, a rate eight times lower that the typical mechanical water meter.

Dynis says this attribute will allow measurement of low-flow usage to increase “by 10 percent, at a minimum,” adding $22.98 a year to an average user’s bill at the current water rate. Over the 20-year life expectancy of the meters, Dynis promises the city $160 million in added revenues.

The group’s figures are based on the current water rate. Given the sharp rate increases enacted in July by the Board of Estimates, a typical city customer will pay closer to $40 a year when the new meters go into full operation in 2018 – and the city will gain an equivalent jump in revenues.

Sticker Shock

Another factor likely to cause “sticker shock” to homeowners is that when old meters malfunction, they tend to “slow down” – or under record the true flow of water. Very rarely do meters speed up. In cities where smart meters have been installed, consumers often find immediate spikes in their bills.

On the other hand, whether the new technology will produce bills that are less prone to error is open to question.

Currently, meter readers (the city employs 39 of them) go house by house, open the meter lid and read the dial. The readings are then recorded on a hand-held device. When asked about inaccurate water bills, Mayor Rawlings-Blake laid blame on the reading of the old meters.

“Once the meter read gets to the billing department, the process is smooth, so now it is making sure that the meter reading is accurate. That’s why we’re focused on and moving forward with trying to get more accurate meters across the city . . . [because] so many of these meters are so old,” the mayor said at a press availability last Wednesday.
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FULL COVERAGE IN THE BREW:

Politically-wired firm wants $100 million more for city contract than competitor (10/9/13)
Mayor tightlipped about Dynis contract (10/9/13)
Rejected company had lowest bid for city’s water meters (10/10/13)
Finances of firm seeking $185M water meter contract appear shaky (10/11/13)
Mayor issues statement on water meter contract and Dynis (10/11/13)
Totaling up the costs of “smart” water meters (10/18/13)
Team that got $107 million for Harbor Pt. is now pushing the Dynis water meter bid (10/24/13)
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The smart meter will use a radio transmitter attached to the meter to send signals to a collection unit or cell tower, which will transmit the information to a central office. Software will then read the data and store it in a new Meter Data Management System (MDMS).

Glitches Around the Country

The city is calling on hourly meter readings for all meters across the city – or 9.8 million reads per day. These readings will be stored for seven years and made available to city personnel and consumers (who will need to purchase software to fully access the information).

Critically, though, the MDMS data will have to interface with the Finance Department’s billing system in order to generate bills. The merging of the new technology to a “legacy” billing system frequently results in erroneous billings.

The city services its current crop of 404,000 water meters at a repair shop in West Baltimore. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Baltimore has 201,000 meter customers, with another 203,000 in the county. City meters are serviced at this shop in West Baltimore. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The Rawlings-Blake administration says that a new billing system will be installed by the time the smart meters are operating.

But detailed planning has not yet gotten underway and money could run short, leaving the city with a hybrid system subject to computer errors.

Just such glitches plagued the installation of 800,000 smart meters in New York two years ago.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio received hundreds of complaints from consumers. He issued a report that ripped into what he called a too-hasty rollout of the system and the difficulties faced by customers seeking redress to what they considered to be inaccurate bills.

“One of the most outrageous things is that if you wanted to challenge your water bill, you have to pay the city $180 to have your automated meter checked by a human being,” de Blasio said. The high-tech system presented a “classic’Catch-22″ where customers were forced to choose between a high water bill or an equally high price to appeal.

“Proof of Concept” After Contract Award

In the meter contract under review by the Rawlings-Blake administration – there are two bids, by Dynis for $185 million, and by Itron for $84 million – there is little leeway for technical errors. Unlike some major contracts, the city has not run a pilot program to evaluate the feasibility of smart meters.

Instead, the winning bidder is required to undertake a “proof of concept” test as its first order of business. The contract calls for the vendor (either Dynis or Itron) to install 5,000 meters and transmitters in downtown Baltimore, and another 5,000 meters in Bowleys Quarter in Baltimore County.

If 100% of the readings from the new meters are “successfully passed” to the city’s billing system over a 30-day test period, the city will authorize the smart meter project to proceed.

The timeline for the new meters is as follows: completion of the “proof of concept” 12 months after the contract is awarded; “substantial completion” of the city sector of the program by April 1, 2016; “substantial completion” of the county sector by April 1, 2017; and final installation and operation of smart meters by January 1, 2018.

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Reach Mark Reutter at reuttermark@yahoo.com.

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  • bmorepanic

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to install a new billing system with an actual interface first? And also check that the new meters are reasonable accurate in field tests in our climate and soil conditions?

    I’m also sorta fascinated by the appeal for inaccuracy thing. How would anyone know if the meter is misfiring or needs to be repaired or replaced? What will we do with a system we can not operate ourselves and with meters we can not maintain? It’s starting to feel like speed cameras.

    • LessHumid

      There’s your problem: it makes sense.

    • River Mud

      If you’re like us, you’ll know there’s a problem once the City suddenly “fixes” it and sends you a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars with no explanation or justification. Enjoy!

  • ushanellore

    Once again the ordinary folks will be ripped off. Bankrupted by tolls, taxes, fines and souped up traffic violations galore the exasperated and exhausted voters of Baltimore drag on helplessly! The beginning of the 21st century is marked by a never ending cavalcade of rascals who befriend, parade and exploit technology for deception.

  • ham_snadwich

    I guess it depends on how it’s billed. Currently there’s a minimum usage charge that’s not too difficult to come in under with modern appliances. Are they replacing that with billing based on exact usage?

    • River Mud

      We were in that area where the guys slept/smoked dope for 3 years instead of reading the meters. We paid the minimum (used below the minimum – 2 of us in the house) for 5 years legitimately, probably 2-3 more years illegitimately (we had a baby and the meter readers were doing their best Cypress Hill impression down the street, all year long), and now (after our $1200 adjustment to the City), with 3 of us in the house, flow reducers, and over 300 gallons of rain storage, we cannot get anywhere near the DPW minimum charge. We use 101-125 gpd (25% of average American household use) and are at double the DPW minimum charge. But I’m sure they are putting the money to good use!

      • Matthew Riesner

        You know the Meter Readers biggest question about the change is where they are going to smoke their dope while working as customer service in the office (the bathroom, behind the dumpster, etc.)???

  • Baltcoltsfan

    I already have one of these Itron things on my meter it’s been there for years, I don’t think it works.

  • GXWalsh

    I just had a new mechanical meter installed in the summer. I thought it was odd if they’re just going to change it again. I was the only one on the block to get it.

  • Andrew

    Apparently they are quite hazardous:

    http://stopsmartmeters.org

    • ham_snadwich

      Unscientific nonsense.

  • LessHumid

    I keep hearing the minimum usage charge thrown around… What exactly is that charge? How many units are included in the minimum? Is this minimum charge the same for all residential properties across the city? (I have several friends with unoccupied residential properties all of whom are paying the “minimum” however their bills are all different)

    • GXWalsh

      I may be wrong, but I think it is based on levels/floors and I think it is about $50 per floor.

      • Matthew Riesner

        I believe its on the width of the pipe (5/8″, 3/4″, 1″, etc.) that comes into the building and it has nothing to do with the building type.

        • ham_snadwich

          Yeah, minimum is based on the meter size.

  • Tbird

    Keep up the good work Brew! The Sun’s front page article today is about the “Dine and Dasher” getting caught again. And the Sun makes you pay for their crappy newspaper web site! Baltimore deserves a better hometown newspaper.

  • FunTymer

    Are the new meters going to be installed at all the blown out, abandoned homes in town? Also, based on the comments below it seems like the system could be more efficient with better personnel management as opposed to the shiny new equipment.

  • Matthew Riesner

    Since these are electronic, I would imagine that the meters will require a battery or some other source of power. So does anyone know how often they will need new batteries and if those batteries will require the replacement of the entire meter and if they don’t are the batteries a standard that can be bought inexpensively. Can the batteries on the units be serviced by employees of the DPW or will it take a special contracted technician?

    • JFCanton

      It could theoretically be piezoelectric (uses pressure to generate a charge) like new gas furnace starters are now, but one product online says it has a lithium battery with a 5-10 year life.

      • TazMan

        Itron claims battery life of between 13 and 30 years for its different models, depending on how often they transmit to the base.

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