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What Will Smart Meters Cost Austin Water?

Such technology comes with an $80 million price-tag, but would cut down on the need for manual meter readings, something Austin Water hires an outside firm to do for $3.6 million a year.

by Andra Lim, Austin American-Statesman / April 20, 2016
Ryan McCauley

(TNS) -- Following hundreds of complaints about unexpected water bill spikes last summer, Austin Water is applying for an $80.2 million loan to switch all customers to smart meters that electronically transmit data about water usage.

Such devices could provide earlier indicators of unusually high water use, giving customers more time to address a leak or rein in their water use before getting a large bill. As it stands now, customers don’t find out about their usage until they receive their monthly bill, which is based on the read a city-hired outside company manually takes from the meter.

“Having that much data available on a moment-to-moment basis gives you options you don’t have” now, such as sending customers a text message if the meter picks up on usage suggesting a leak, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros told the City Council on Tuesday. “But also, you’ve got to figure it all out. It’s a very complex undertaking.”

Smart water meters, besides being expensive to provide to thousands of customers, reside in “harsh conditions” in a box underground that can contain water, dirt and bugs — and that can make it hard to obtain a digital read from the meter, Meszaros said. Austin Water is testing several ways to read meters, such as using a mobile phone network, creating its own network or using the network Austin Energy set up for its electric smart meters, he said.

Such technology would cut down on the need for manual meter readings, something Austin Water hires an outside firm to do for $3.6 million a year.

Austin Water already sent an initial application to the Texas Water Development Board, which administers a low-interest loan program, and made it onto a list of the highest-priority projects. If the City Council gives its blessing Thursday, Austin Water would file a fuller application in May and hear back in July.

In 2½ years, after finishing studies and plans, Austin Water could begin replacing the current mechanical meters with smart meters on a large scale, Meszaros said. The rollout to all Austin Water customers, both inside and outside the city, could take five to seven years for roughly a quarter-million meters, Meszaros said.

Austin Water would probably consider an opt-out program similar to the one Austin Energy has for its smart meters, Meszaros said. Austin Energy charges a one-time $75 fee as well as a $10 monthly fee for manually reading the meter.

The cities of Round Rock and Smithville have started installing smart water meters and expect to be done this summer. Last year, the Texas Water Development Board approved loaning $76 million to Fort Worth for smart meters.

Meszaros said the time is right for Austin, given last year’s billing drama and customers’ desire to better understand their usage, such as how many gallons it takes to water a lawn.

Austin Water is also applying for an $87 million loan to improve the filter system at two wastewater treatment plants and expand its reclaimed water system in the Montopolis, Onion Creek and Colony Park areas, as well as to properties such as cemeteries, University of Texas facilities and parks. Customers pay a subsidized rate for the treated wastewater, which is commonly used for irrigation and in cooling towers.

©2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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