The El Dorado Water Utilities is continuing the process of converting to a former automated water meter-reading system.
Last December, the El Dorado City Council/El Dorado Water and Public Works Board (EWPWB) authorized the EWU, under the direction of the Department of Public Works, to proceed with the purchase of cellular endpoints for the city's existing water meters.
The cost was $595,000.
The decision came after nearly two years of talks and efforts to find a solution to a looming issue with the city's cellular-based water meters.
Nearly 10,000 cellular meters were purchased and installed in 2015 and 2016 at a cost of more than $2.2 million, replacing the former AMR meter-reading system.
In February of 2021, Robert Edmonds, director of public works, and John Peppers, EWU general manager, told the EWPWB that cellular technology in the water meters was expected to become obsolete by the end of the year.
The pair explained that the bandwidth of the meters' transmitters would no longer be used because wireless carriers were decommissioning the transmitters and upgrading to new ones.
For more than a year, the city wrangled with Badger Meter, the manufacturer of the cellular-based water meters, about the matter.
Questions and debates arose about the terms and coverage of a 10-year warranty that came with the cellular meters.
The EWU questioned if the warranty included network coverage, noting that the sales order denoted a 10-year, "100%" warranty for options that were presented by Badger, including cellular endpoints, and called for the city to purchase new endpoints in the 11th year of the contract.
Further, city and EWU officials asked if Badger adequately explained whether the warranty came with network coverage and if the company was aware that the bandwidth of the cellular meters would become obsolete before the warranty expired.
Badger did not budge on the matter and stood firm on comments that were made during a meeting in 2014 with a Badger representative and EWU officials.
The company rep said the 10-year coverage for the endpoints and wireless network was based on 3G, third generation wireless mobile telecommunications technology, noting that 3G was the latest such technology that was available at the time.
"You're going to have to replace that technology. I don't know whether it's going to be 5G or 10G in the 11th year (of the contract) but it's going to change," The Badger official said.
In March of 2022, Edmonds said the city had been granted a one-year extension to address the issue, which had to be resolved this year.
Following months of exchanges with Badger and advice from EWU attorney Brian Ratcliff, the EWU's Water Advisory Board settled on a recommendation that was offered by Badger in early 2021: switch back to AMR endpoints at a cost of approximately $600,000 with a 20-year warranty.
The recommendation was one of three options the company presented at the time.
The other options were to upgrade to new cellular technology or choose a hybrid model that would combine both elements into a water-metering system that works best for the EWU and its customers.
The cost came in at $595,000, or $57.50 per endpoint, for the utilities' 10,300 customers.
Peppers and Shane Gibbons, EWU project coordinator, provided an update on the project on March 15.
Gibbons initially said the project was expected to take about a year to complete.
However, Peppers said the anticipated completion date had changed to August 1.
By March 10, 2,241 endpoints had been installed, Peppers told city officials, adding, "Our goal is to take the first reading using the new endpoints on April 15. That's where we are."
Edmonds said installation is about 25 percent complete.
Council Member Frank Hash asked if the endpoints that have been fitted are operational and Peppers said no, reiterating that the EWU will begin taking readings on the new system next month.
Explained Gibbons, "Frank, what the situation on that is is the endpoints we put in, we had some programming issues to put in to go from the cell phone frequencies back to the radio frequency to drive by antennas on the vehicles and on the hardware and training is going to take place on March 28 ..."
Once training is complete and the hardware installed, the EWU can start physical readings by the target date of April 15, said Gibbons.
He further explained that the cellular-based endpoints system "was basically a phone calling twice a day giving usage to the cellphone tower."
The new endpoints are set up on an old-school, manual radio frequency with which crews will be able to capture drive-by readings.
Hash noted that the cellular endpoints allowed the system to send real-time warnings to EWU customers about "any catastrophic problems," such as leaks.
"No, sir. That part of the software will be disabled," said Gibbons.
He said the EWU will have the capability to take laptop or tablet computers to a customer's location and physically retrieve the same data.
However, the information will not be sent via live translation to the EWU office, as with the cellular endpoints.
Gibbons and Peppers previously said that about 10% of EWU customers used the cellular capability.
Edmonds again inquired about the number of users on March 15 and Gibbons said about 1,800 people out of 10,300 locations took advantage of the software application.
"From a consumer, it was nice," an audience member said.
"But expensive," Council Member Vance Williamson interjected.
Edmonds agreed, saying that he feels like the city made the right decision by switching back to the former AMR system.
He noted that a cellular carrier recently announced that it has made the leap to 10G broadband service.
"So, that's another $1 million to last for ... how long will the 5G be around?" Edmonds said.
Hash said that for the EWU, the meter-reading system is primarily geared toward billing.
Gibbons pointed to another issue, saying the AMRs operate off lithium batteries, whether the system is based on cellphone signals or radio frequency, and the batteries have a 10-year, prorated life expectancy.
In areas where cellular service is spotty, the endpoint has to hunt for a signal and the process depreciates the life of the battery, said Gibbons.
"And that's what we've experienced. The promise of the 10 years of cellular endpoints, the batteries are going dead. The technology has changed," he said, adding that the EWU is already preparing for an upgrade to the migratable endpoints by the end of the decade.
Edmonds and Gibbons said that setting up repeater antennas in strategic locations around town would curb the need to physically drive routes to record meter readings.
However, Gibbons said the objective of the EWU is to take physical readings.
The Water Advisory Board voted on March 14 to set up a separate account to collect $9,500 a month that had been going toward a $10,000 monthly fee for cellular data.
The money will be dedicated to the water-meter upgrades that will be needed in the next 10 years, said Edmonds.
The water and public works board also discussed efforts to secure funding for a multi-million project to replace the EWU's two wastewater treatment plants, each of which are more than 40 years old and in poor condition.
The upgrades have been mandated by the federal government and the latest cost estimates for the project are $10 - $15 million.
Mayor Paul Choate has reached out to U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Bruce Westerman for assistance.
City officials and the EWU have said they are working to make sure the project will not result in a large tax or rate increases for users.
The next step, Edmonds said, is to schedule meetings with Boozman and Westerman's local staff members.
"We're within a half of a point of qualifying for a grant to do that but for some reason, that half a point seems to be a real holdup," said Edmonds.