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Cleveland saves with smart water-meter readers

Editor's note: The following is part of EnergyBiz coverage of the 2015 Itron Utility Week Knowledge Conference in Los Angeles. 

New automated meter-reading technology has saved the City of Cleveland more than just time and money.

It has taken a lot of the guesswork out of billing its water customers - and helped it restore trust in the utility.

Cleveland set out to update its water metering system in 2010. At the time, the city was saddled with technology that had, for the most part, been installed in the mid-1980s. As a result, many of the city's remote meters were troubled; some 18-percent of the city's 415,000 customers were receiving estimated bills each month because the water department was unable to get an accurate read on their usage. That year, after reviewing numerous bids, the city chose Itron as its vendor to begin a full upgrade of all of its customers' meters by outfitting them with AMR technology. 

With a $90 million budget, the project ran into some delay before installation began in May 2012.

In his presentation at Itron's Knowledge Conference on Monday, Gregg Faust said the project is "very close" to being on budget, costing - as of today - somewhere between $88 million and $89 million. 

And with 387,000 out of 415,000 customers installed, the project is 93 percent complete. Better yet, according to Faust, many of the homes that have yet to be upgraded are bank-owned or vacant. Also, the city has gone from having to estimate billing for nearly one in five of its customers to doing so for only 0.8-percent of its customers now. 

The AMR technology - branded Clear Reads by Cleveland Water - transmits a meter reading to a central system once an hour. 

It's cut down on the number of employees Cleveland Water deploys to read meters in person from 40 people in the field to six. 

The system monitors water consumption and will alert a homeowner if it detects either potential for a leak or an actual leak. And if the city needs a reading of a specific meter, it can save time and money by pulling up the meter's data remotely without sending out a truck. The technology also empowers Cleveland Water customers to view their own usage and monitor it whenever they chose. 

Ultimately, when it came to rolling out the technology and installing it, Faust notes that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the customers themselves. 

"The deployment of AMR in a system that's primarily in vaults is pretty straightforward. You schedule your own repairs because you don't need to make appointments," Faust said.  "(But) when you have a system where you're at the mercy of the customer to let you in or not, it makes it that much harder from a planning and a logistical standpoint."

Perhaps heightening customer distrust at the outset of the project was a recent Cleveland Water billing system overhaul. 

"Our name was mud before our project started," Faust acknowledged. "Right before we bid this thing, we changed our billing system. I'm putting it mildly to say that it was a disaster. The City of Cleveland Water Department wasn't high on our customers' list when we started this project."

It still isn't with everyone, including customers who, for whatever reasons, don't trust the technology.

With the project now all-but complete, Faust's team is mulling an opt-out plan for homeowners who simply refuse to budge and won't allow the city in to install the new AMR technology. Faust has even taken the time to personally speak with any property owner who has alleged that the transmitters on the smart devices cause health problems or are used to spy on their homes. 

"Every project is going to get to a point - especially with remote meters - where no matter what you do, you'll have certain customers who will never let you in," Faust acknowledged, saying that he was able to talk some of these customers into changing their minds - but not all of them. "You need to decide at what point the shut-off will be."

Cleveland Water began initiating shut-offs last year after 10-day and subsequent three-day warnings to customers refusing to comply - a move that Faust acknowledged was controversial as these are customers who are still paying their bills. The department put shut-offs on hold over the winter due to freezing temperatures but resumed over the summer. 

Faust said his department has the authority now to apply a meter-reading fee that would charge these non-compliant customers who refuse to allow the AMR technology into their homes. The final decision on the fee, however, has yet to be made. 

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