Reviews mixed for city’s high-tech water meter system

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published March 14, 2013

MOUNT CLEMENS — Whether or not the city’s more technologically-advanced water meters are great for everyone is under debate.

Mount Clemens Utilities Director Charles Bellmore believes they are.

“Since we’ve installed the new meters, we’re seeing that the revenues collected are beginning to reach what we estimate they should be, based on the amount of water that’s leaving the water plant,” said Bellmore during a March 4 presentation on the city’s Water Meter Modernization Program. “Water loss dropped from 26 percent to 21 percent.” He said the goal is to get down to between 10 and 15 percent.

The city was likely losing a considerable amount of water ever since meters were installed in 1928.

Bellmore said that, in that year, Mount Clemens’ water system had more than 3,000 customers and 100 percent were metered. Back then, the meters were described as “old, heavy, brass meters with a dial and sweep hand.”

“The meter man would knock on the back door and kids would run into the basement to watch him read the meter,” Bellmore said. “Back then, mom was at home with the kids. There was usually someone home to let the meter man in.”

Those chunky meters held their own over the decades, but were entirely worn out by the time 1980 rolled around. That was when Mount Clemens city officials went ahead and replaced every water meter in the city. Bellmore explained that the new meters were the same style of Neptune meter, but there was a wire that would connect to a box outside the home. The meter man now was able to just pull up and look at the box outside and did not have to knock on the door.

“I don’t know if anybody is still driving a 1980 car, but some of the problem with things that get old, they slow down and they break down and, when they break down, it’s hard to get parts because it’s obsolete,” Bellmore said. “That’s the situation that we got into.”

The city started modernizing in 1990 and replaced the older boxes with the first generation of radio transmitters from England. Bellmore said the batteries in these new meters didn’t last long, and couldn’t be replaced; rather, the entire unit had to be replaced.

In 2010, a new generation of water meter came out, which featured the meter, the register and the radio transmitter all in one unit, with no need for a wire and an exterior box. The radio transmitter sends a frequent reading to the city, but the meter reader still needs to drive by the house and pick up the reading from the transmitter, where a memory chip stores up to 96 days of memory.

“It’s a customer-friendly meter,” Bellmore said.

The new meters are able to detect if there’s either an intermittent leak in the house or a constant leak that had previously gone undetected. Bellmore said the leak can easily be located and fixed.

He said already the meters, which the city is halfway through installing around the city, have detected once unknown leaks, including in his own home.

“I had the new meter put in and, after one day, the intermittent icon was flashing and I learned that my furnace humidifier was constantly running water through it,” Bellmore said. “I had to shut it off for the winter and will replace the valve. That was free water I was getting, the old meter wasn’t picking it up.”

With the old water meters, Bellmore said the water loss in the city had reached 26 percent, which was hurting them, financially.

“Now, because over 45 percent of the properties in this community are non-taxable, much of our water construction debt must be placed on the rates rather than taxes,” he said. “So we need to generate the revenues to make the bond payments for all the construction that has occurred in the last 20 years, like the CSO Project, which was forced upon us by the state … and improvements to the water plant. Payments must be made so that, every year, we look at the amount of revenues that are needed, and the rates are adjusted to make those revenues.”

The CSO Project was a $36 million water and sewer system construction project that prevented widespread basement flooding, prevented combined sewer overflows, replaced many aging water mains and upgraded the water plant to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. Most of the funding for the CSO Project came in the form of low-interest loans from the state.

“But, of course, with the economic downturn, we’re losing customers, and with the (old) meters failing, we’re also losing out on unaccounted-for water,” Bellmore continued. “Since we’ve installed the new meters, we’re seeing that the revenues collected are beginning to reach what we estimated should be based on the amount of water that leaving the water plant”

Bellmore said water loss has dropped from 26 percent to 21 percent. He said there are 5,100 meters around the city — including commercial and industrial buildings, which have already been upgraded — that needed replacing. As of last week, 2,600 have been replaced, putting the city around the halfway mark and three years from completion.

Despite some beliefs, Bellmore said that “the water meters are not ‘smart meters’ in terms of the two-way communication technology that the Edison smart meters contain, but many people are still calling them smart meters.”

City Commissioner Joe Rheker said there have been many residents who have contacted him with their feelings that the meters are sort of an invasion of privacy.

One of those residents is George Gemmer.

“I don’t want a meter … giving communications of things going on in my house, whether it’s a drop of water or my toilet running,” he said. “It’s my business on my side of the water meter. Your job is to measure the volume of water I use and charge me for it. I don’t want my house monitored in any way, shape or manner.”