City eyes switch to automated metering system

By year's end the City of Auburn expects to launch a two-year process of switching its 14,000 water utility customers to an automated metering system

Kevin Snyder

By year’s end the City of Auburn expects to launch a two-year process of switching its 14,000 water utility customers to an automated metering system.

But on Monday, citing the need for additional information about the changeover, the Auburn City Council delayed for at least two weeks entering into a $5.4 million contract with the vendor, Ferguson Water Works of Kirkland.

On Monday of last week, City of Auburn Utility Manager Lisa Tobin described the system to council members at a study session: “It’s a much more efficient way of collecting real-time, water-usage data. This will help us better manage all of our water resources, and it will help our customers better manage their own water use, so they can conserve, save money, identify new problems that they have, and just be better stewards of the environment.”

Kevin Snyder, Auburn’s director of planning and public works, noted that as of now, the City and its meter readers are using an approach that is “traditional, historic and out of date.”

Ironically, the changeover does not call for any shiny-new, 21st century technology, Snyder said, but a practical, tried-and-tested “logical approach to asset management” that provides qualitative and quantitative benefits. On the qualitative side, the new system promises to be much more efficient, provide better customer service and offer more real-time data.

On the quantitative side, the upgrade will save the City money.

Here is how it works:

In a box next to the customer’s water meter, the vendor installs a small radio and its transmitter to send real-time water-use data to several antennae. These broadcast the information to a centralized server. From there the data makes its way to the City’s customer service department for water-use analysis and billing.

Puget Sound Energy has used the same system for 15 years. The City of Renton is a more recent customer.

The initial outlay won’t be cheap. And it will take 20 years to pay for itself.

On the other hand, City officials learned, there’s a lot of bang for the buck to go around:

• The City gets a more consistent revenue flow;

• When the changeover is complete in two years, customers will be able to monitor their own water use on a City webpage; they will no longer have to wait for a meter reader to reveal a costly leak they didn’t know about.

• A cut in costs for the City, which will no longer have to send meter readers out;

• More efficient billing for the City, and real time, unauthorized-water-use detection capabilities;

• And the City gets help in its efforts to conserve water.

Tobin said it should take about 2 to 2½ years for the vendor to install the hardware and software and replace the meters.

“But we expect a return on the investment within 20 years,” Tobin said. “And those are just the things that are hard numbers that we can quantify. There are intangibles that are priceless: in the level of customer service; in the amount of information we’ll be collecting; and in our being able to better manage our resources so we can plan future capital improvement projects based on our actual customers’ data. That’s information that we don’t currently have, and it will help us do our jobs much more efficiently.”

Snyder said it has taken a multi-department effort over the last three months to get this far, which has involved Planning and Public Works, the Finance Department, Information Technology and the City Attorney’s Office.

“I want to emphasize that there are no new rate increases that are required to finance this project,” Snyder said. “This is a project we’ve been planning for a long time. We sold bonds in 2013 to pay for the initial implementation segment of this project. And our finance director, Shelley Coleman, has been working very closely with us to develop the rest of the funding for the project.”

City documents show that the changeover will be accomplished in stages. In 2016 the vendor will do the first half of the customer meters and in 2017 the other half.

“We’ll be running two different systems simultaneously, so some will be on and others won’t. That’s why we didn’t want to roll out the customer-access portal, where this customer might have one, and this one won’t. We are going to wait on the customer-access portal until the system is fully implemented,” Tobin said.

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