Black River Falls replacing water and electric meters with automated system

This is an example of the electric meter Black River Falls is planning on installing next year that will provide automatic readings for all homes in the city.

Black River Falls Public Utilities recently took out a $280,000 bond to pay for a new automated meter information system, which will change how water and electric meters are read in the city.

The automated meter information system will come with an electric and water meter that is equipped with a radio so that Black River Falls Public Utilities will be able to gather the meter reads on a daily basis directly from their office. The 10-year bond is at zero percent interest and will be provided by WPPI Energy, which is the utility’s energy provider.

“It offers a lot more options for the utility and the customer,” Casey Engebretson, Black River Falls Public Utilities general manager, said. “Whenever the customer can get setup, they can monitor when their usage is. They will be able to get on their portal and be able to see what their trends are as far as when they use water and electricity.”

This will be especially valuable when a water leak occurs in a home that is empty either because someone is vacationing or it is a rental property.

“We have had times where we have read a meter and there has been no usage on the water, and a couple of days later they would have a pipe break or something. It could run until the next month when we read,” Engebretson said. “This system allows us to monitor every day if there is a high water reading, then it will show up down here at the office.”

Engebretson said this new system will also save on labor costs for the utility because currently every month employees read meters for four days. With the new system, employees won’t have to leave the office to read the meters.

This reduction in labor is expected to save the utility $35,000 a year in labor costs, so the system should pay for itself in eight years, which is much sooner than the 20-year battery life on the meters.

“I hear from utilities that move into the system that it does pay for itself – it is not a long-term cost,” Primus Marketing outside salesman Bill Amelse said.

Amelse said this new system will also allow the utility to track usage much more closely on a daily basis.

“They are able to better understand when and how they are using electricity,” Amelse said adding that this could be useful in high-usage months so the utility could secure more power.

Despite the advantages to the system, Engebretson points to a need to replace the old system as the main reason the utility is moving forward with this project now.

“One reason we are getting this is because currently we have what is called AMR and it is a one-way communication. We have that and we still have walk-up reads, and the metering equipment we have now it is getting to the point where it will no longer be supported by the manufacturer,” Engebretson said.

Setting up the system

Engebretson is planning on beginning to install the electric meters in late March and complete installation within four to five months, which is much faster than the water meters will be installed.

“Those take less time because all you have to do is knock on the house and if somebody is home you notify them that we are going to change the meter out. Then we are going to go to the outside of the house to the meter and then they pull the old meter and put the new meter in,” Engebretson said.

The water meters instead will be installed over a 4-year period. This process will take longer because the utility will need to setup appointments with homeowners to access the basement of each home. Engebretson expects to be able to install 350 water meters a year.

Since the water meters need the electric meters to work, the utility will be coordinating the installation of the two meters.

“We will start in one area and the electric will go out and start putting their meters out, and then shortly after that the water will start in that same area,” Engebretson said.

The information is also passed from one meter to the next until it reaches the utility office, which is another reason to install meters in one area at a time.

“Once those electric meters are in that one area, that area can be read with this new system so we don’t have to wait to get the whole city done before this will start working,” Engebretson said.

While there are many advantages to the new system, Engebretson does acknowledge that some people may not want the new system installed. Since this would require employees to go out and read that home’s meter, a different rate will be used.

“Once we get all of this in place and this becomes our standard metering equipment, we will develop a non-standard opt-out rate for those customers who choose not to have the advanced meter. Once approved by the Public Service Commission, the non-standard meter rate would be at a higher cost for customers who choose not to have that advanced meter in place,” Engebretson said.

Engebretson said that some people are concerned about the radio frequency that is emitted by the meters, but both Amelse and Engebretson said the system is safe. Amelse pointed to a baby monitor as having the same 900 megahertz radio used in the meters.

“There is very, very little radio communication. There is a very short amount of time that it is going off,” Amelse said adding that the meters transmit a radio frequency for approximately 1.5 seconds every four hours.

Engebretson said that if anyone has concerns about the radio waves that they can contact him at any time to discuss their concerns.

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Jackson County Chronicle editor

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