Bloomington, Ind., Eyes Switch to Smart Water Meters

A large part of the current metering infrastructure is several decades old and in need of replacement, officials say. A $9 million lease-purchase agreement could see more than 27,000 smart meters installed across the city.

by Kurt Christian, Herald-Times / December 20, 2018

(TNS) — Residential water meters in Bloomington may soon be replaced with “smart” water meters.

Many customers’ water meters are 20 to 30 years old, and they’re failing to record around 17 percent of low-flow readings. A proposed $9 million lease-purchase agreement would pay for the equipment and installation costs of a 27,250-unit smart meter system capable of providing on-demand and hourly usage reports, as well as an assortment of remote control options.

Even though city of Bloomington Utilities will be paying for the upgrades using revenues from a 2016 water rate increase, customers’ bills may increase by a couple of dollars as readings become more accurate.

“Part of the purpose of this is to correct the deficiencies in our metering infrastructure as it is, but we’re seeking to do a lot more than that, and move the utility and the city into the future,” CBU Director Vic Kelson said. “You’ll be able to go anytime you want to your computer, your tablet or your phone to see how much water you’re using. It will be a very sophisticated system.”

The plan is to install more than 27,000 “smart” water meters and do away with the city’s current mechanical meters that are outdated.

CBU began replacing customers’ mechanical meters with smart meters about 15 years ago, Kelson said, but that program only succeeded in replacing 20-30 percent of CBU’s meters at that time before it tapered off. The proposed smart meter overhaul is an effort to get all customers using the same Sensus brand electric water meters in one fell swoop. Updating the system would take the city 6 years, Kelson said, but a contractor could do it in 12-14 months for around $9 million.

Negotiations about that lease and what company would actually install the meters are ongoing, but the early terms show a $9 million loan from First Internet Bank would have a maximum interest rate of 3.4 percent over the next 11 years. If the city council approves the proposal at its Dec. 19 meeting, Kelson said the entire system could be re-vamped and running by early 2020.

The first step in bringing such a system online would require six radio transmitters be installed on public parking garages and throughout the community. Those transmitters would bounce signals back and forth between CBU headquarters and a customer’s water meter. In addition to monitoring leaks, the smart meters would also reduce city employee workloads. Currently, utilities workers have to physically go to each meter to record a customer’s usage and generate their monthly water bill. The new units would be monitored remotely, with annual in-person fail safe inspections.

“There’s still plenty of work to do, but they won’t be spending it going out and reading meters every day,” Kelson said.

Additional features offered by a smart water meter system include the ability to remotely connect and disconnect service, detect tampering, identify and isolate pressure issues and curb potential water loss. There are currently around 2,220 smart meters installed across the city, and utilities workers continue to upgrade meters as the old models fall out of service. The new smart meters would have an expected lifespan of about 20 years.

The new system will have benefits beyond tracking water usage though, as it establishes a new high-security wireless communications network. Kelson said the city could use those same six transmitters to monitor traffic lights, parking meters or other linked technology.

“Essentially anything you can think about that you might want to measure out there, we’ll have the ability to collect the data for your analysis,” Kelson said.

©2018 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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