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Water meter tech to become outdated less than a decade after installation

City looking into replacing transmitters, possible legal action by Tia Lyons | March 1, 2021 at 9:00 p.m.
Public Works Director Robert Edmonds shows a transmitter for the city’s cellular-based water meters. The transmitters will become obsolete soon and several groups are working together to come up with a plan to address the matter, including possibly pursuing legal action. (Contributed)

At the start of 2022, transmitters for the city’s cellular-based water meters will become obsolete and several groups are working together to come up with a plan to address the matter, including possibly pursuing legal action.

The newly formed El Dorado Water and Public Works Board initially discussed the issue during a specially-called meeting on Feb. 5 and they followed up with a more in-depth conversation on Feb. 24.

In early February, Robert Edmonds, director of public works, and John Peppers, general manager of the El Dorado Water Utilities, said they heard the news about the transmitters just prior to the start of the special meeting.

Edmonds explained then that transmitters that are part of the EWU’s automatic water meters are obsolete and will have to be replaced by 2022.

Work to install the nearly 10,000 automatic meters for residential and customers wrapped in the spring of 2016. The $2.2 million project took two years to complete, with discussions beginning in the spring of 2014 and the installation portion of the job lasting more than 10 months.

Former EWU general manager Mark Smith explained at the time that the meters were a new product offered by manufacturer Badger Meter that used a wireless, cellular-based end point to eliminate the need to install transceiver gateways on EWU water towers.

Electronic readings would also eliminate the need for manual meter readers, thus saving payroll expenses for the EWU; allow for better leak detection and increase billing efficiency; and allow customers to use their mobile devices to monitor activity — including water consumption by the hour and average use by the day, week or month — in real time, Smith explained.

Utility Metering Solutions was the contractor for the job.

On Feb. 5, Edmonds said that after this year, the bandwidth for the transmitters on the Badger meters will no longer be used, noting that wireless carriers are decommissioning the transmitters.

“These things are no good,” Edmonds told city council members while holding up one of the transmitters. “And they’re charging us $1 per day for (each of) the transmitters until the vendor comes and picks them up and sends them off to be decommissioned.”

He also said the 2016 water-meter replacement project came with a 15-year warranty but now, there is a caveat with the changes that are coming in 2022.

“Oh, they said the warranty is still good but the transmitters are out of service,” Edmonds said.

Added Peppers, “That particular meter was not supposed to care who the carrier is. Now, it’s just ‘looking for’ a cell tower.”

Edmonds has said the cost of new transmitters and installation will “easily” surpass $1 million and it could triple with the added expense of replacing existing concrete meter boxes with plastic boxes — a project that he said should have been executed with the 2016 meter-replacement.

The city council, EWU and Water Advisory Board — a five-member group that oversees EWU operations and serves as a liaison between the water utilities and the Department of Public Works — are all putting their heads together to come up with a solution to the problem.

‘Two sides’

“We can’t be the only ones that’s dealing with this. I imagine it’s thousands across the country,” Council Member Billy Blann said on Feb. 24. “There are two sides to this: the legal side and we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do.”

Council Member Paul Choate agreed, noting that the city needs to act with a sense of urgency.

“The biggest problem is that we’ve only got a nine-month window and we’re hitting critical mass,” Choate said.

Edmonds said he is looking into a legal angle with which to approach the matter with Badger Meter.

“The question is how long have they known this? We can get the answer from the (Federal Communications Commission) about when they told them that that bandwidth will no longer work,” Edmonds said. “It wasn’t two weeks ago. I’ll bet they knew when they sold them to us.”

He explained that the third generation (3G) of wireless, mobile telecommunications technology is being phased out and upgraded, noting, “You know we’re already up to 5G.”

Edmonds and Peppers said the cost to keep the Badger meters and replace the transmitters would be about $1.2 million.

Referring to comments he made Feb. 4 about the $1 daily charge to hold the transmitters until they’re collected and decommissioned, Edmonds said the charge is being applied to 300 transmitters.

There is also the matter of the concrete meter boxes, he told council members.

“The contractor was not allowed to replace the concrete (meter) boxes with plastic boxes (in 2016). If we spend $1.2 million and we do not remove those concrete boxes, then we’re wasting $1.2 million,” Edmonds said.

He said the previous set of water meters, which allowed for drive-by reads, functioned well in the concrete boxes but with cellular-based technology, the concrete boxes with steel components and metal lids are a bigger drain on the life of the batteries inside.

“The batteries on those meters are similar to a cellphone. They don’t have good coverage because, like a cellphone, they’re searching for a ping,” Edmonds explained.

Council Member Vance Williamson said selecting the cellular-based Badger meters in 2016 was an attempt by the EWU to save costs on labor for meter readers.

Edmonds questioned the cost-savings, saying that the previous set of water meters called for three meter readers and with the Badger meters, five meter technicians are now in place.

“Those meter techs have to go out and reset the meters and replace those little antennas that stick up out of the box. That’s $10,000 a month in cellular data reads,” Edmonds said. “We had three meter readers. Now, we’ve got five people working on this every day.”

Choate and Peppers said that the EWU could “put boots on the ground” and send out manual meter readers as short-term solution until the existing transmitters are replaced.

Peppers also said the EWU does not have sufficient manpower to complete the transmitter replacement project in a timely manner and Edmonds said the work could be contracted.

By the end of the meeting, city officials agreed to ask City Attorney Henry Kinslow to reach out to the FCC about the matter and to continue exploring options to replace the transmitters and concrete meter boxes.

New drive-through window

The El Dorado City Council also authorized Edmonds to seek an appraisal for property that is adjacent to the EWU office at 500 N. Washington as a potential site to expand the utilities’ drive-through service.

Edmonds said the EWU initially contacted the owner of property that is just north of the EWU office about possibly selling a strip of land to add a second drive-through lane.

“(The property owner) would rather sell us the whole thing and we need to get it appraised,” Edmonds said, noting that an office building sits on the property.

The proposed project has been under discussion for a number of years as a measure to help alleviate traffic back-ups onto Washington Avenue at the existing drive-through lane and to improve efficiency for customers who use the drive-through to pay their bills.

The traffic backups have become more pronounced in the time that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has limited in-office visits.

The new drive-through lane will come with a drawer in the window and a pneumatic tube, which is installed at the existing drive-through window, Edmonds said said.

Customers may also pay their bills online at www.eldoradowater.come or by phone at 870-862-9482. Service fees are applied to online and phone payments.

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