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Austin to Spend $165 Million for Smart Utility Upgrade

Austin Water will soon begin switching all customers to smart meters that electronically transmit data about water usage.

(TNS) -- Loans for more than $165 million awarded on Thursday by the Texas Water Development Board will likely be used by Austin Water Utility to replace customers’ water meters and expand its water reuse program.

Following hundreds of complaints about unexpected water bill spikes last summer, Austin Water had applied to the state agency 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 in April. “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.

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 told the Council in April.

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.

Austin Water also won 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.

The Austin City Council will decide in August whether the utility can move forward on accepting the loan in August; it may not be until next summer that it votes on whether to move forward with the smart meter loan.

The loan and interest, which is likely to be a rate under 2 percent, will be paid off by ratepayers, said Joseph Gonzales, utility budget and finance manager.

Austin Water spokesman Jason Hill said the utility had been considering the smart meters even before the complaints about bills.

“We’re looking to affordably and realistically integrate this technology into our current infrastructure,” he said.

“The projects financed today help ensure that Texans will have a secure and reliable water supply for decades to come,” said Bech Bruun, chairman of the Water Development Board.

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