Wildly swinging utility bills will hopefully soon be a nightmare of the past.
In recent months, city workers have installed new electric meters in nearly all Amherst homes. They’re also hoping to have 5,000 new water meters installed citywide by the end of October.
The $2 million project takes aim at the errors caused by human meter readers.
Mayor Mark Costilow acknowledged the old method of sending workers to manually check meters caused many problems, from transcription errors in their book to laziness.
Issues with manual readings had gotten so bad that last year the city hired a third-party company to read meters at $1.50 per unit, which amounted to about $18,000 per month.
That company’s contract is now done. For the next couple of months, Amherst will read as many meters as possible with a mix of technologies: old drive-by radio meters and a single contracted worker while the new system is phased in.
See, at one point city leaders had decided to buy a system that would allow workers to drive up and down streets and the meters would automatically report usage numbers by radio.
But Costilow said that system was never more than halfway rolled out before the first radio-read meters would break down or the batteries would run out.
When fully up and running, the new meter system will automatically report usage automatically via a network of 10 “gateways” citywide using a mix of cellular and fiber technology.
Steve Bukovac, the city’s tech director, is excited about the advances the new system will allow Amherst to make.
It will be able to identify on an hourly basis where power is being consumed. It will also help monitor transformers to determine problems before they result in power outages.
If a resident has a complaint about a water bill, the system will be able to pinpoint exactly when unusual usage occurred — for example, it might point to when a resident filled a swimming pool.
When a meter fails, the system will send out an alert and workers will know exactly where to go to make a replacement — no human inspections will be needed to find faulty equipment.
But perhaps most importantly, the new tech will allow billing to be much more consistent.
Costilow said eventually all meters will be read on the same day on a standard one-month cycle. That will end problems with receiving a 45-day bill one month and a 15-day bill the next, which has been an issue with human meter readers due to manpower, illness, and efficiency.
It will take about a year to gradually migrate all customers to the same utility bill schedule, the mayor estimated.
In the meantime, Bukovac said some residents have voiced concerns about radio frequencies used to transmit data from the new meters and whether they could pose an increased risk for developing cancer.
“They’re not going to be a factor in your health,” Bukovac said.
Our world is already saturated with radio waves from the sun, deep space, WiFi routers, cell phones, and radio and television broadcasts. The meters use extremely weak signals that pose no risk, he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.