Infrastructure

Washington Utility Moves to Replace Failing Smart Meters

The more than 10,000 digital meters installed by the Centralia City Light Department since 2004 have a 10-year lifespan and will need to be replaced over the next five years.

by Will Rubin, The Chronicle / August 16, 2018

(TNS) — Washington's Centralia City Light Department will soon begin the process of replacing more than 10,000 smart electricity meters over the next five years after the city council approved the use of more than $1 million in funds at its meeting Tuesday.

City Light first began installing digital meter readers on buildings in 2004. The machines transmit usage data over power lines using a computer system created by Missouri-based Aclara Technologies that calculates monthly billing statements sent out to users and helps city workers identify problems on the power grid.

Those meters came with a 10-year life expectancy and have been failing at an increased rate, according to City Light General Manager M.L. Norton. He plans to take advantage of a special pricing plan offered by Aclara to install new meters that should last twice as long and save more than $1.2 million via the discounted unit price and waiving of three years worth of support fees.

“It’s going to save us quite a bit over doing a massive replacement without this program or by replacing just a few at a time,” Norton said. “The meters are the cash registers for City Light and they’re vital not only for registering power use but for monitoring the system to make it as reliable as possible. Sometimes, we respond to the power being out at a residence before the owner knows it’s out.”

Mayor Pro-tem Max Vogt relayed his own experience with the smart meters and how the technology helped him identify an issue with the heating system in his home that caused his City Light bill to skyrocket.

Working with city staff, Vogt was able to obtain a readout of his power usage at different times during the day, based on data transmitted by the meter, to solve the problem in short order.

Councilor Peter Abbarno asked Norton how the replacement program would affect user rates. Norton responded that the impact on potential fee increases would be small compared to other projects such as the ongoing upgrades to the Fords Prairie Substation or anticipated construction of a new substation.

City Light budgeted $145,000 in 2018 for meter replacement and meter collar costs. The corresponding line items beginning in 2019 are anticipated to be around $230,000 per year.

“It’s just a good deal,” Norton said during his presentation to the council, spreading his arms for added effect.

Smart meters have sometimes been the subject of controversy within communities concerned about perceived issues ranging from health problems caused by electromagnetic waves to privacy concerns regarding whether the machines can track what customers are using power for at certain times.

Norton said that since the Aclara system doesn’t use a wireless radio signal to transmit data, but uses the power lines themselves, there’s no reason for concern about electromagnetic waves. As for the privacy issue, he said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the meters at all in the five years he’s been at City Light.

“The city chose to go the right way,” Norton said. “There’s no radio, no traffic or anything going through our heads. The whole world is going to smart meters. It’s more than some kind of boondoggle, it’s something we use every day, saves us money and saves us time.”

©2018 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.