On Course

Hazlehurst, Ga., gets in flow with automatic meter reading technology

by / January 27, 2005
Situated in the sportsman's paradise of Jeff Davis County, Ga., is the town of Hazlehurst, with a population of approximately 3,800. In this tranquil rural community, bordered by three of the state's major rivers -- the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Altamaha -- water flow figures prominently, but not for reasons you'd think.

Testing the Waters
Problems associated with inaccurate measurement of water flow in their outdated water meters led city officials to upgrade the town's 2,450 meters to the latest automatic meter reading (AMR) technology, which allows wireless meter reading from as far away as 500 yards.

"These meters date back to 1930," said Colin O'Neill, contracting project manager for Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls Inc., which is doing the Hazlehurst upgrade. "The older [the meters] are, the more inaccurate they become, and they don't pick up what is called low flow and high flow," O'Neill said of the antiquated mechanical meters. The accuracy of the old meters tested at 91 percent compared to the expected post-upgrade standard of 99.8 percent.

Cash Flow
"We're looking at $157,000 in increased revenue," said Hazlehurst Mayor Wayne Fountain. The amount represents both operational savings and revenue lost due to inaccurate readings from outdated equipment. To recover this annual loss of needed income, Hazlehurst entered into a $1,072,000 performance contract, which ensures that Johnson Controls will monitor the entire project from start to finish and well beyond. This type of contract is unique in that it guarantees the expected savings and increased revenue for the duration of the 10-year period in which it's financed; otherwise, Johnson Controls issues a check to Hazlehurst for the difference.

"I worked for an electric utility company for many years, and that's one thing that prompted me," Fountain said, noting the similarities between electric and water meters. "You have the same problem. As they grow older, they're less efficient as far as reading accurately, and tend to slow down and record less consumption than is actually going through them." He said the upgrade would generate some revenue for the city but would have a minimal effect on customers. He says customers can anticipate only a minor increase, about 10 percent, in their monthly bills.

Meter replacement by the Johnson Controls team began Jan. 17 and will be completed by March.

Water Wheels
The wireless AMR technology meters, manufactured by Master Meter Inc., transmit water usage data via an electronic signal to a moving vehicle on the street. "Everything is within the meter itself," O'Neill said. "The person in the vehicle that used to ride around and write all the numbers, now has a laptop computer in their vehicle, and every time they drive within 500 yards, that meter will pick up in the system. No one has to actually get out of the vehicle."

This "drive-by" meter reading streamlines the entire operation. "There will be approximately 80 man hours a month savings on meter reading," said Blan Williams, Hazlehurst's Water Waste Board superintendent for the past 18 years. He advocated the changeover after seeing how well it worked elsewhere. "I had talked with the city of Alma, which had the same system."

What formerly took two employees four to seven days to accomplish will now take one person six hours to complete. "A sizable savings in the labor as well as getting accurate readings," Fountain said. "When doing it manually, there's always the possibility you can transpose numbers, and then you've got to go back and reread the meter and rebill the customer."

No Mean Streets
Easier access to meter data also means fewer safety and liability concerns for employees. Not having to encroach on personal property means readers don't have to confront overly territorial homeowners or their dogs. Nor do they waste time or risk injury trying to access hard-to-reach meters. "Sometimes in the older part of town, the meters are inside buildings and difficult to get to, and you've got to have keys. With keys comes a lot of responsibility," said Fountain. "You eliminate all those things because you don't have to get off the street."

Speak of Leaks ...
Another plus to the meter upgrades is environmental. Burgeoning populations in American cities result in increased water usage, and we all should be more mindful about water conservation. O'Neill said about the Master Meter, "It will troubleshoot if there are any problems. The meters will detect if there's a leak going on for 72 hours and notify the computer system. They also notify the customer that they have a leak."

"It's also going to show you in your bill if you continuously keep using so much water," O'Neill added. "It's a good deterrent for wasting water or excess usage."

"We're just real excited about the prospects of getting this done. It's something that needed to be done for a long time," Fountain said. "Johnson Controls has been really helpful in getting this program together and working with us. We expect to see nothing but good things from it.

"I would encourage anybody that has any aged meters to investigate it and see what their possibilities are," he added, "because it's a real opportunity to generate some revenue and savings for a city."
Sue Owens Wright Contributing Writer