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Forest Grove halfway through utility meter retrofit to improve efficiency and accuracy
[January 31, 2013]

Forest Grove halfway through utility meter retrofit to improve efficiency and accuracy

Jan 30, 2013 (The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A meter retrofit project geared toward efficient, accurate reading of power and water usage is working its way through Forest Grove.

Some residents may have noticed an uptick in their light and power bills during the past few years as more accurate meter reading gear replaces outdated and worn-down equipment.

Electric meters that have not been upgraded tend to under-report usage by 5 to 10 percent, according to the Forest Grove Light and Power Department. George Cress, light and power director, said a number of the retrofitted meters were between 30 and 50 years old with mechanical parts breaking down and, at times, barely operational.

Generally, the impact on individual bills is minimal unless the previous meter was borderline inoperable or the property uses a lot of electricity, according to city staff.

The retrofit is a gradual process that frees up staff time and prevents the need to hire additional meter readers, said Susan Cole, assistant director of Forest Grove's administrative services.

The city is about halfway through the multi-year project to replace aging electromechanical meters and upgrade existing solid state meters with Encoder Receiver Transmitter (ERT) systems.

The project started in 2005 and will conclude in three or four years. It has been stretched out to minimize budget impact, Cole said. ERT equipment is an add-on for the meters and costs about $17 per electric meter and $130 per water meter.

The estimated total for the retrofit is $754,000 for water meters and $158,100 for electric, spread out over more than a decade. Since 2005, more than $450,000 of that total has been used to update 4,500 of the city's 9,300 electric meters and 2,900 of 5,800 water meters.

The project is funded through electric and water rates paid by users.

While the cost may sound high, Cole said, the long-term result will be savings for Forest Grove Public Works and Light and Power because no additional employees will be needed to tend meter-reading routes as the city expands.

"It all goes into the balancing equation," Cole said. "This enables the city to have some long-term savings in these rates." With the older meters -- which Cole compared to old-fashioned clocks with a multitude of breakable mechanical parts -- employees must get close enough to read and manually record usage.

She identified three disadvantages with this setup. First, employees sometimes have to inconvenience themselves and property owners to get to meters located in fenced yards or even basements. Second, parking a vehicle and walking up and down a street, veering off at each house to locate the meter, is a time-consuming task that takes away from other work. Third, manually entering data leaves the door open a few inches wider for human error.

ERT meter reading -- developed in the 1980s -- transmits "short pulses" on a radio frequency that is read by a handheld device, Public Works Director Rob Foster said. The amount of radiation put out by these devices is about on par with that produced by a baby monitor. They are a one-way communication systems that allow an employee to walk or drive down a street and receive instant data on household electricity and water usage.

The city employs two full-time meter readers who can now spare time to perform duties such as meter repair. Hiring an additional employee would cost about $85,000 annually in salary and benefits.

Along with saving the expenses for a third employee, the departments will see benefits in areas that are more difficult to quantify, Cole said. These include more hours available for meter repair and a decreased need for troubleshooting in the billing department.

The city is retrofitting equipment based on meter reading routes, starting in the northwest corner of the city and working through the center toward the southeast portion.

The city has not received many calls regarding the meter changes, Cole said, though a few people have phoned in with questions. If customers are particularly concerned with any bill increases, Forest Grove Light and Power can consult with homeowners on how much electricity they are using and methods to bring that usage down.

-- Kari Bray ___ (c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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