Meter readers get new technology, won't need to enter these customer homes

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The electronic systems in cars, computers, phones and other devices have changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

As times change, so too have the ways utilities like water authorities collect customer data.

The door-to-door meter reader is becoming a relic of the past as new technology makes it possible to read meters remotely using handheld devices.

Though several water authorities in Western Pennsylvania have begun switching to radio signals to read meters, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County is just beginning to phase in the newer technology.

Based in New Stanton, the MAWC serves 125,000 customers in five counties, including 15,000 households in McKeesport.

Those homes and businesses will be among the first to receive the new meters, said assistant manager Tom Ceraso.

"We read the meters in Mc-Keesport every other month," he said. "Everywhere else, it's four times a year."

With the new meters, the authority's team of 14 meter readers won't have to enter homes. They will be able to read meters through a handheld device that detects nearby radio signals sent from the meters.

The signals also can tell the authority when there is a leak in a customer's system and other details.

Data is stored in the new meters for more than three months, so the authority can review usage trends and pinpoint possible problems at a customer's request.

In the past, meters were read in-house. Eventually, remote meters were used with wires that ran from the meter to a location outside of the home, much like an electricity or gas meter.

Mr. Ceraso said they have since evolved with radio signals that eventually will be able to be picked up through vehicles.

"As the technology evolved, this is the next rendition of meter reading," he said. "We've transitioned through all of those technologies."

So far, the authority has replaced about 5,000 meters and hopes to complete the entire system within 15 years.

"I would like to see it done sooner than that," Mr. Ceraso said.

The first meters to be replaced will be older, larger models, especially those for commercial clients. Those meters are usually the first to begin failing, Mr. Ceraso said.

Over the next five years, the authority has budgeted $3 million from a $141 million bond issue for the project, along with $3 million in capital project funds.

That will fund the conversion of about 30,000 meters, or about 25 percent of the entire system.

The entire project will cost $20 million to $25 million.

"My hope is that we're able to increase funding and have this implemented sooner," Mr. Ceraso said. "We're putting in as many as we can every day."

The new technology won't cost meter readers their jobs, Mr. Ceraso said, as many will be moved to other departments where trained personnel are needed, such as for the installation of the new meters.

The Pennsylvania American Water Co. began the transition to radio-signal meters in 2006, according to spokeswoman Josephine Posti.

Today, more than half of its nearly 300,000 Pittsburgh-area customers have the new meters, which are read by meter readers who walk a daily route with a handheld device. Meters continue to be changed as they reach the end of their useful life, Ms. Posti said.

The company serves some customers in Pittsburgh, along with most Allegheny County municipalities and parts of Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Fayette, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Warren and Washington counties.

Another 300,000 customers in Pittsburgh and Millvale are served by the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.

That utility began changing its meters more than 15 years ago, with radio signals that are sent directly from the meters to a collection device at the authority.

"We no longer have meter readers," said Melissa Rubin, PWSA executive communications coordinator.

Each day, the authority uploads a report and notifies customers of usage spikes, which could indicate leaks.

Decades ago, meter readers had keys to each customer's home and many got to know their clients well. Times have changed, Mr. Ceraso said.

"They way things have changed since then is that people are very skeptical about someone coming into their house," he said.

Meter readers, too, have seen the change. He said many are apprehensive about entering customers' homes and would rather use the new technology.

"They've embraced the efficiency of it," Mr. Ceraso said. "In the modern world, it's probably the best way to go."

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Janice Crompton: or 412-851-1867.


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