FerndaleJuly 10, 2012
Company offers free upgrade to Ferndale’s water meter system
By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer
FERNDALE — It sounds like there should be a catch, but there’s not: Every building in Ferndale will soon be getting new water meters at no cost to the city.
Two years ago, the Ocala, Florida-based company Elster AMCO Water Inc. began installing a modern, high-tech system that receives water readings via radio signals for each of Ferndale’s nearly 10,000 customers. The water system overhaul was part of a $3.1 million contract that the City Council approved in April 2009.
However, it did not take long for city officials to realize that the new system was not working properly for a significant number of water customers. To address these issues and propose a solution, Elster President Tom Gwynn flew up to Ferndale to address the council at its June 25 meeting.
Gwynn explained that so far, Elster has installed 9,616 new water meters and radio endpoints in the city, but only about 80 percent of those endpoints are actually reporting the data that they receive.
“To put it bluntly,” he said, “that is unacceptable. I know it’s unacceptable to the city; it’s certainly unacceptable to Elster. It is not an example of what (work) we have done elsewhere, and it is not why the city selected Elster to deploy this metering system.”
Because the system has not been operating correctly up to this point, Elster has been paying technicians to come out to Ferndale to manually read the approximately 20 percent of meters that are not sending out any information to the company’s electronic data collectors, called evoGates.
As a way to make amends for the failure of the existing water meters, Gwynn offered to replace the entire system at absolutely no cost to the city. In addition, Elster would upgrade Ferndale from its existing “mesh” system to the company’s more expensive and sophisticated “star” system at no extra charge.
“I want you to understand that this solution is 100 percent at the expense of Elster,” Gwynn told the council. “We don’t expect the city to participate in this. … The (data) collectors have not lived up to their promise in this case, so we are proposing a new system that will require only two or three collectors instead of five, meaning that the city will have less equipment to maintain and the robustness of the system will go up.”
City officials were pleased with Gwynn’s proposal, but also expressed concern about a recurring issue with the existing system. Ever since the new meters were put in place, they said, many Ferndale residents have been calling to complain about receiving higher water bills.
Gwynn pointed out that when water meters get older, the accuracy level of their readings decreases, often by a significant margin. While the average life of meters is typically about 12 to 15 years, Ferndale’s previous meters had been in place for 20 to 25 years. This caused them to give readings that were too low by as little as 5 percent or by as much as 30 to 50 percent.
“Because they are mechanical devices, water meters only do one thing over time, and that is slow down,” Gwynn said. “They almost never, ever speed up, which means that replacing a population of meters that is 20 to 25 years old would suggest that it’s very likely that most of them were under registering. So you were losing revenue as a result of inaccurate meters.”
“As you have noticed,” he continued, “the increased revenue (to the city) tends to justify the expenditure on the new meters, although it can be very painful for your citizens because they’ve gotten used to (their water bills) being at a depressed level. … Ferndale is by no means the only place in the country where this has happened, though. It’s a very common dilemma for cities that are re-metering their water system.”
At press time, the council was expected to vote on the proposed contract with Elster at its July 9 meeting. Officials wanted to wait in order to give City Attorney Dan Christ adequate time to look over the terms of the contract.
If approved, Gwynn estimated that the new and improved system would require several months to install. But he was confident that this time, the company would be putting in a system that works the way that it should.
“My goal here tonight was to give you some comfort, and I hope that I’ve done that,” he said. “Elster has a history of integrity with these types of systems, and we have no intention of letting this one fail. … We are absolutely committed to making sure that this time, we walk away with a success story.”
Members of council thanked Gwynn for being candid and direct in discussing the problems with the existing water meter system.
“I appreciate Elster stepping up to the plate because the complaints (from residents) have been numerous,” said Councilman Mike Lennon. “You were very well-prepared.”
Mayor Dave Coulter echoed those sentiments. “We’re not ready to vote on this contract tonight,” he said, “but we do appreciate you being here to address our concerns and the quality issues that have happened.”
In a subsequent interview, Coulter added that he was “really impressed” that Gwynn flew all the way from Florida to talk to the City Council in person. “We were all encouraged by the very aggressive remedies that Elster will now be putting in place to address these problems,” he said. “We won’t be totally happy until the system is 100 percent operational, but it was nice to see that they appear to be taking this issue just as seriously as we are.”
According to City Manager April Lynch, there has been an ongoing dialogue between the city and Elster over the last couple of years. She noted that the company recently put Ferndale’s water meter system through a series of tests to determine what the problem is and how to fix it.
“Elster has been very upfront with us since day one,” Lynch said. “It’s been very reassuring to see how closely they’ve been working with us every step of the way.”
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