In Waynesville, meter readers going the way of milkmen

fr metersJake Flannick • SMN Correspondent

Some homeowners in Waynesville might have started wondering why a certain visitor who had routinely appeared in their yard is no longer coming around: town public works employees, pen and paper in hand, jotting down readings on their water and power meters.


The number of such monthly visits has decreased over the past couple of years as public works employees have replaced thousands of residential and commercial meters with wireless transmitters. Its roving employees, or meter readers, still are gathering data on home energy and water consumption, only now with a handheld remote from the street.

The investment is not expected to lead to rate increases or layoffs, said Fred Baker, the town public works director. He noted that the department plans to assign new responsibilities to its three meter readers.

It is seen as a way to help the town save money, not only by trimming labor costs, albeit slightly, but also by enabling more accurate readings. As a result, the town could end up collecting more from customers whose meters might have given lower readings in the past as a result of wear and tear, particularly on underground water meters.

“If you use a lot of water, you’re going to get billed for using a lot of water,” Baker said, describing the meters as the “cash registers” of the town water and sewer system.

And while the new devices will not slow or prevent water leaks or help improve the town’s aging water and sewer system — some of its pipes date back to when the system was built in the mid-1920s  — the upgrades are designed to help better detect them, with a computer system monitoring their condition.

The replacement of the devices has drawn little, if any, attention around town. The department has not encountered any concerns or inquiries from homeowners, Baker said, despite workers digging holes in their yards to reach the underground water meters.

“As long as they get their water and pay their bills,” he said, “there’s nothing to worry about.”

Of the 6,300 to 6,500 residential and commercial water meters in town, public works employees have replaced more than 900 over the past two years, averaging about 40 per month. With shovels and a backhoe, workers spend only a short time on each job.

Over the same period, the town has replaced between 1,300 and 1,500 electric meters, which are not underground and thus do not involve as much labor. That is more than half of the total number run by the town, said James Reinhardt, the superintendent of the town electrical system.

Waynesville is the only municipality in at least the far western part of the state that still operates its own electric utility, he said. The rest, about two-thirds of the town, is covered by Duke Energy Progress, the main utility in Haywood County and the wholesale supplier of electricity to the town.

It is unclear exactly how much the upgrades will end up costing the town, which expects to continue buying large shipments of meters on a pay-as-you-go basis with money set aside in its electric and water funds. Residential electric meters cost the town about $55 each, according to financial records; residential water meters, nearly $180 each. Commercial meters are more expensive. 

It had turned to the state for a loan, totaling $300,000, to buy the handheld remotes and some 1,600 new water meters that were delivered in December. The town plans to repay the interest-free loan over the next 20 years, said Eddie Caldwell, the town finance director. Some of that money also went toward repairs to water lines and extending the water system to Maggie Valley, he noted.

Public works officials have said they plan to continue increasing water and sewer rates in coming years to help pay for the $20 to $25 million in capital improvements the town faces in the long-term. The annual increases have amounted to 5 percent over the years.

“We’re trying to make a dent,” Caldwell said. The town also expects more water and sewer fees, adding about new 100 customers every year.

The upgrades are the result of long discussions among town leaders about better managing its infrastructure. In 2010, the town used federal stimulus money for substantial improvements to its water and sewer system.

“I think that we were falling behind,” Baker, the public works director who took his post in the mid-1980s, said of the investments.

Nonetheless, officials acknowledge that such repairs are unending.

“It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” Baker said. “Once they get it done, they start again.”

Wireless meters are nothing new.

In Asheville this past summer, a contractor hired by the city finished installing about 57,000 wireless residential and commercial water meters. It took about four years, costing the city roughly $5 million which it had set aside money in a reserve fund, said Steve Shoaf, the director of the city’s Water Resources Department.

The change did not result in any layoffs or rate increases, he said.

The new devices are different from what are known as smart meters, which transmit real-time data on electricity and water consumption directly to utilities. They have emerged in cities and towns across the country over the years, though they have raised alarm among opponents who claim negative health effects from electromagnetic radiation. 

The town has largely ruled out the possibility of smart meters as a result of their cost, Baker said.

As for the meter readers themselves, it is unclear how much residents here might notice their absence. Similar to door-to-door milkmen, stories of them building relationships with homeowners over time, or even intervening in life-threatening circumstances, are not uncommon.

Whatever the significance, homeowners still might catch a glimpse of them in town — only from a distance.

“They’ll still be on the street,” Baker said of the meter readers. “They’ll be in the neighborhood.”

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