Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Look Before You Leak

Kenneth M. O’Brien

On February 28, DPW Director Tom Daley and Water Department Director Tom Cutler made a presentation to the Southbridge Town Council. The subject was a multi-year project to replace existing water meters with an electronic system that will allow readings to be taken by a water department employee while simply driving by the residence in question.

The Southbridge Evening News of March 2, 2011 reported, “According to Daley, the new system will improve productivity, eliminate estimated reads, provide more equity for the customers and provide a more efficient billing system.”

Interestingly, on the same day this report appeared in the Evening News, another report was appearing on CNN. Titled “Skyrocketing water bills mystify, anger residents”, the report took issue with the merits of the system being proposed for Southbridge.
The report followed a four-month look into Atlanta water bill complaints conducted by CNN's Kyra Phillips and the CNN Special Investigations Unit.

CNN reported that, “Many of the problems arose after the installation of new, automated water meters, which began nearly five years ago, and involved contracts for meter installations, the electronic meters and software equipment.
The automated meter-reading technology eliminates the need for city workers to manually check every meter. Instead, they retrieve the data by driving by each property. The meter electronically transmits data showing the amount of water used.
From the beginning, there were problems.
In 2007, city auditors found they were ‘unable to verify electronic meter readings’ because of ‘meter read errors, equipment failures or human errors.’
Specifically, the audit said ‘about 9% of the meters could not be read due to broken or malfunctioning equipment.’”

The story details the case of one individual whose water bill spiked to $1,200 in November and then to $6,879 in December. Complaining to CNN the individual, who happens to be an attorney for the EPA, said “"I am furious, I am upset, I'm confused. I can't get an answer from the city because they won't admit there is a problem."

Foillowing CNN’s inquiry to the city, the individual’s account was reviewed.  As a result of the review her latest bill is $34.

The report points out that the issue is not limited to Atlanta. “…similar complaints about huge water bill spikes have popped up in Cleveland, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tampa, Florida; and Brockton, Massachusetts.”

It is perhaps worth asking whether our leaders were aware of these problems when they approved the switch over to the new system. It is also worth asking what guarantees were provided by the contractor if Southbridge experiences similar problems.

(The author thanks Mike Marketti for contributing to this story.)


  1. Ken, this is something I don't quite understand. For years, someone from the water company had to come into my house to read the meter. When I was not at home, they would leave a postcard for me to send back with my own reading of the meter.

    I believe that it has been at least 2 years now that I have had this "drive-by" reading with my meter read from the outside.

    This seems to be the same program I have been involved with for quite some time. Why is this being presented now as a new program?

  2. Brent:
    In response to your question, I have posed it to several members of the Town Council as well as the Town Manager.

    At present, I have a reply from councilor Logan that reads as follows:

    "The new meters have an RF transponder in them that allow someone to simply drive by the house and acquire data from the meter. I believe some of the more modern meters in town allow a worker to insert a probe into the meter to read the stored data. This will no longer be necessary since the new meters will be read remotely. Does this answer Brent's question?

    Also, thanks for sending the information about the problems they're having in Atlanta. I'll request the DPW director be at the next TC meeting to address this issue."

    If and when I receive additional replies I will make them available.


  3. http://www.networkworld.com/newsletters/lans/2010/081710-smart-grid.html

    Smart Grid technical issues

    One of the biggest challenges of deploying millions of new devices for a Smart Grid is that each of those devices could become a potential target for hackers. In a sense, a dumb meter is a less hackable meter, and therefore safer. This issue has been raised, and even acknowledged by the national coordinator for Smart Grid interoperability.

    Another issue is the sheer number of new meters necessary for the Smart Grid, each of which is going to need an IP address. Fortunately, this is one issue that could be solved fairly easily, by using the emerging update to IP called IPv6. IPv6 allows for many more IP addresses than IPv4 does, which should make accommodating the new system relatively straightforward.

    Smart switches will also be needed for the Smart Grid, and these switches will have to be more rugged than the type you usually see in home or office environments, to operate in the hostile environments one might find electrical power grid equipment. The good news is that the industrial Ethernet market is well developed and should be able to handle the challenge.

    Smart Grid companies

    Indeed, Ethernet and IP are well established in the network world, and so you can expect to see the same companies that dominate networking make a play for the Smart Grid. Cisco, for example, has started to place its bets by investing in Smart Grid companies and lining up partners. It recently introduced products specifically for the Smart Grid and expects it to be a $20 billion/year business.

    Verizon will be providing wireless infrastructure and management for the Smart Grid. AT&T has gotten into the Smart Grid sensor business. Some of the specifics of which technology will be used are still open, but WiMAX may play a role.

    Meanwhile, the Smart Grid has a bit of an image problem among consumers. Does the Smart Grid benefit the provider or the consumer? What’s the benefit of paying up front for smart meters, and for paying more for electricity at peak times? These are questions that need to be addressed.


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.