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posted: 9/6/2012 6:18 PM

Des Plaines investigating smart water meters

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Des Plaines officials are considering replacing the city's aging analog water meters with a new digital smart meter system that would allow staff to remotely read meters from city hall or any other location through a radio frequency.

That means the city would be able to eliminate the cost of sending a person door-to-door to manually read meters -- an annual savings of $60,000, if all 16,500 analog meters are replaced with digital smart meters, officials said at a public works committee meeting this week.

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Some area towns -- including Morton Grove and Wheeling -- have converted or are purchasing smart meter technology to make the switch, said Tim Oakley, Des Plaines director of public works and engineering.

"The meters are more precise so you get a better reading on the low end of the spectrum," Oakley said. "The new meters can read .03 gallons per minute, less than half a cup or 3.8 fluid ounces (of water)."

The older meters can accurately read only to one-fourth a gallon of water.

With existing analog meters, there is a meter inside the home and another meter outside, which is what is read by city contractors for billing. However, there can be a discrepancy in the readings between the two pieces of equipment, which has resulted in residents being hit with higher water bills later on once the problem is identified, "because our final reading (at closing) is off the meter in the house," Oakley said.

Oakley said the city replaces about 300 meters per year because they are faulty.

Des Plaines 6th Ward Alderman Mark Walsten suggested the city not bill those residents whose meters turned out faulty.

"I think there should be some kind of amnesty until we move on this," Walsten said. "Residents are getting stuck with the bill. It should be our responsibility because it's our equipment that's not working."

Officials said the benefits of smart meters include being able to identify leaks, burst pipes, running water or unusually high consumption within a building. The product also has a 20-year life span.

Replacing all 16,500 meters -- half of which are past their useful life -- at once is estimated to cost $4.3 million. City public works staff is recommending replacing the meters over 20 years at a yearly cost of roughly $215,000. The city could also opt for having a customer portal where residents could monitor their water bills and usage trends for an additional cost of $8,000 yearly.

Oakley said there are only two providers in the market that provide automated meter reading equipment -- Sensus and Badger -- to meet the city's needs.

Badger, which made the now-obsolete analog meters used by Des Plaines, has stopped manufacturing replacement parts for the older system. The city will run out of its stock of replacement parts in about three months, officials said.

"This is the best product out there now," Oakley said speaking of the Sensus smart meters. "We are not going to recommend we invest more money on old technology."

Committee Chairman Jim Brookman said he didn't want to move forward without going through a public bidding process, despite assurances from city staff that they have researched all the vendors available in the market.

"I'm just not comfortable being told that there is only one company that can provide this service," Brookman said. "That's a problem. Other cities are researching this and they are coming to different conclusions."

He also wants guarantees that Sensus, if chosen as the vendor, will support its product for 20 years.

"It seems to be a game the industry plays and it costs cities millions of dollars," Brookman said.

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