LCUB installing Internet-read meters

 Tammy Cheek-News-Herald

Meter readers will soon be a thing of the past for Lenoir City Utilities Board.  

Shannon Littleton, LCUB manager, said the electric department is in the process of installing automated meters.

"This particular project with the automated metering has been going on since 2005," Littleton said. "Basically, what the customer will see is a meter that is read and data is collected via the Internet. That data is then collected at LCUB and billed to the customer.

"It's going to be good," Littleton said about completing the project.

About 50 or 60 years ago, LCUB used mechanical meters that operated much like a clock. A meter reader had to stand in front of the device and read each dial. As those meters aged, they would slow down.

LCUB transitioned two decades ago to a solid-state meter, whose insides looked more like a computer. It was more accurate and readers did not have to stand directly in front. By using a hand-held device, meters could be read from a distance.

"That technology kept us from walking to every meter," Littleton said.

LCUB will now move to a Tantalus automatic metering system.

While there are many automatic meters on the market, Littleton said LCUB chose Tantalus because its communication system is in the meter rather than a hand-held device.

"All these meters can communicate with one another and there is a communication link through an antenna system back at LCUB," he said. "There are other utilities that have technology similar to that now, but what I hope is LCUB will have much more advanced technology than what others have.

"Our customers deserve to have this type of technology for them, and the way we have implemented it, there has been no effect on rates," he said.

Littleton said the utilities board accepted the plan to install the AMRs over several years, which did not require the board to borrow money.

Of its 60,000 customers, LCUB has already installed about 22,000 automatic meter reading systems in the West Knoxville area and some in Loudon County.

He said about 20,000 customers in and around Lenoir City will see AMRs the beginning of the next fiscal year. The remaining customers will be changed out the following year. He anticipates the project should be finished by 2015.

The cost of each meter comes in at $100, compared to $30 to $50 for the current solid-state meters, but maintenance costs are lower and the utility will no longer need meter readers.

"There will be tremendous cost savings in terms of meter readers because, eventually, the meter readers will be phased out," Mitch Ledbetter, manager of technical services for LCUB's electric department, said. LCUB currently employs 13 readers.

Ledbetter said the readers will not be laid off but plugged into other positions or offered early retirement.

"We've allowed for natural attrition," Littleton said. "LCUB has contracted with outside meter reader companies to fill any necessary gaps in personnel."

The new meters also allow LCUB to develop an accurate outage management system, Littleton said, explaining the system can pinpoint an outage and predict how long it will last.

In the future, customers will also be able to access the data from the meter to monitor usage, he said.

Littleton expects the meters will ultimately lead to better customer satisfaction by helping stabilize rates, provide instant leak detection and help prevent theft of services.

"This technology goes hand-in-hand with the rate design (LCUB has) with TVA because TVA will be billing us at a different rate every hour," Littleton said. "You can only imagine with this (mechanical) technology, you would have to send a reader to someone's home every hour."

The electric department is not alone in automating meters. Littleton said the gas department has already deployed 54 Tantalus Badger meters in the Miller Landing area.

"We are currently exploring, this fiscal year, for water meters to be electronically read as well," he said.

Another advantage of the new meters is it will allow LCUB to use a pre-payment plan.

If a customer is on a strict budget, he or she can determine how much to spend a month and pay that amount in advance.