Smart meters to impact meter readers, customers

Smart meters to impact meter readers, customers
Posted on 12/30/2021
Meter readers can pick up meter reads from radio frequency meters when driving near an area where a meter is located.

Meter reading counts as one of the most physically grueling jobs at El Paso Water.

But once the utility completes a full smart meter conversion across the city, the days of crouching, heavy lid lifting and walking up to 10 miles daily will be a thing of the past.

With 14,000 units already installed through a three-year pilot project, EPWater’s full meter replacement program is due to get underway in March 2022. The goal is to install 20,000 smart meters a year but with more than 250,000 meters in the system, project completion isn’t expected for about 10 years, said Business & Customer Service Assistant Manager Marla St. Leon.

“The smart meters we have chosen are solid-state and self-contained, with no mechanical parts to fail,” said Mark Bolduc, Utility Business & Customer Service Manager. “The battery life of these meters is estimated to be 20 years, shifting our program’s lifecycle from a 10-year replacement cycle to 20 years.”

Benefits in store

The advantages of switching to durable smart meters are multifold. Faster leak detection, water conservation and improved meter accuracy will translate to cost savings for both EPWater and customers, St. Leon said.

“The current practice with mechanical meters is that we read the meter once a month, and we don’t visit that meter again until the same time the next month,” said St. Leon, adding six weeks may pass by the time an EPWater employee is dispatched to investigate a customer’s high bill because of a possible leak. “With the smart meter, we can actually respond the moment the meter sends out an alarm on a leak, saving money and water.”

EPWater is eager to begin the new program and reap the benefits of smart meters, Bolduc said. The program, in conjunction with the new customer information system due in March as well, will modernize the way the utility conducts business.

“The smart meter replacement program is perfectly aligned with our strategic plan,” Bolduc said. “It improves the use of technology, infrastructure and efficiency, as well as customer satisfaction and confidence.”

What’s ahead for employees

For EPWater’s hard-working meter readers, it means their days out walking in the elements to get manual meter readings are numbered.

“Their jobs are going to evolve a bit as we modernize with a different technology,” St. Leon said.

Meter readers will undergo training so they can understand how an AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) meter works properly. They will also become familiar with the towers that will collect and relay data to a cloud-based software application integrated with EPWater’s customer service system.

St. Leon is hopeful that easing the physical demands of the meter reader job with smart meters will help the department retain more workers. Since St. Leon began overseeing meter readers, a safety program to install radio frequency meters in hazardous areas — such as street medians and areas where transients congregate – has been implemented to prioritize employee safety.

“In certain areas, workers open up meter boxes and find they are used as personal lockers, restrooms, or a place to store weapons, drugs,” St. Leon said. “If you stick your hand into a meter box and get pricked by a hypodermic needle, that’s an intense situation where you are now fearful for your life.”

New smart meters are sure to improve working conditions for meter readers who routinely face such job challenges as bad weather, unfriendly dogs and bee swarms, she said.

Another complaint some workers are sure to raise? The issue of not getting a workout while on the job.

“There are a lot of people who really enjoy their job because it keeps them trim,” St. Leon said. “It’s not going to be as physically demanding as it is now.”            

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