By Andrew Tellijohn
Ryan Priebe and his colleagues with the City of Chatfield used to have to stop working on whatever project they were involved in to spend two days a month walking the city, house by house, reading water meters.
Then, if there were abnormally high readings, they’d have to block off more time to visit houses again to diagnose a problem, sometimes taking additional readings each day.
But a new meter reading system installed at the end of 2016 has greatly simplified the process. Staff now get readings electronically transmitted to City Hall a couple times per hour.
“Now I can look at it instantly,” says Priebe, Chatfield’s water superintendent.
Chatfield city officials partnered with the Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA) to identify, purchase, and install an improved water reading system that more accurately represents the amount of water being used in the town, while also saving money and work hours associated with reading meters.
The new meters have been installed in nearly every house, park, and city building in Chatfield, reducing six days of labor per month to about 30 minutes. The project was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2017 City of Excellence Award.
The city spent just over $450,000 on the project. The majority of the physical installation was completed in late December of 2016. The project was necessary because the existing meters were about 25 years old. Meters lose accuracy as they age.
“They’re less sensitive in general,” says City Clerk Joel Young. “In those latter years, you might not be picking up 5 to 10 percent of your water. That’s what we’re excited to learn. The thing that we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to account for more water.”
When the last meter reading update took place in the early 1990s, Chatfield’s process improved because instead of going into houses, staff could simply walk by the outside meter and point a gun at a plastic device on the meter to get the reading, Young says.
When they decided to do the upgrade this time, the city had hoped to improve its system by making it a driving rather than walking job. They envisioned doing readings via drive-by radio while staff slowly drive a city truck down the street.
The bids for that option came in lower than expected, allowing for an even greater efficiency improvement. Chatfield, instead, installed four fixed network collectors at high points throughout the city. They collect water meter information and beam the results to City Hall using no manpower.
“Information is coming into the office a couple times per hour,” Young says. “We always have up-to-date information.”
Deputy Clerk Beth Carlson used to take the manual reads and download them to the computer.
“Now I click a button that says ‘Get billing read,’ ” she says. “I can have the entire town read in a matter of minutes.”
The process isn’t 100 percent perfect. There are a handful of houses located in such a way that it’s difficult for the collector to get a good read, so city employees have to read those manually.
“It might take a half-hour for them to get those scattered around the town that have to be read,” Carlson says.
But efficiency is vastly improved, to the tune of saving nearly 500 labor hours annually. And the system offers several benefits beyond saved time, Young adds. For one, the system generates a daily leak report that tells city staff if there is abnormal water use in a house or building for 24 hours.
“That usually means there is a leak,” he says, which allows the city to contact citizens to let them know there may be a problem. “The reaction has been very positive. It’s an excuse for us to come into contact with our citizens in a positive way.”
The project also involved putting meters where they haven’t been in the past—city buildings, for example, like the wastewater plant and the municipal building, which use a substantial amount of water that was previously untracked. There are about 1,060 meters across the city.
The city is now monitoring “areas that we really need to pay attention to, but we weren’t set up to do that,” Young says. “When we do our annual water report to the [state Department of Natural Resources], there is always a large unaccounted for amount of water. Now, we’re finding that it was mostly public use.”
Adds Priebe: “We use a lot more water than we thought, but at least we are accounting for it now.”
The system has been up and running for about seven months, but it’s too early to provide specifics on financial savings. “We just don’t have enough information yet,” Young says.
Partnering with Minnesota Rural Water Association
One of the keys to getting the project off the ground was Chatfield’s partnership with MRWA. Typically, in small cities, it would be common to engage the skills of a consultant to help ensure bid specifications were written in a way that would produce bids that allow the city to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison.
But Chatfield’s public works staff had come across the MRWA, which provides technical analysis on projects like this for municipalities across the state. The city worked with Jeff Dale, a technical advisor, to make sure those documents were in place. That partnership saved Chatfield $30,000 to $40,000.
“Had he not been involved, there was no way I would have attempted to put the specs together,” Young says. “Even with him involved, I was pretty apprehensive. We took it one step at a time and realized we can do this.”
The association is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Circuit Rider Program, which provides technical assistance for rural water systems that experience day-to-day operational, financial, or managerial issues. So, on a project like this, Dale would help city staff create a specifications guide, understand the options that are available, and walk them through how the installation process might work.
“The biggest part of my assistance helping a city like Chatfield is getting them down the right path and getting them to understand you don’t just call the vendor up and ask for water meters,” Dale says. “There’s a whole lot more to the big picture.”
Financing the project
Chatfield also financed the project through the MRWA’s Micro Loan Program, which is designed for projects just like this one. Going to the regular bond market, Young says, involves costly legal work and stacks of paperwork. The Micro Loan application was one page. (Learn more at www.mrwa.com/microloan.html.)
Financing programs like this are available to any local unit of government that has the authority to issue bonds, says Michael Bubany, a financial consultant with David Drown Associates, which runs the financing programs for MRWA.
The loans can be for utilities, equipment, roads, or other legal purposes, Bubany says. The benefits are a simplified process, lower costs, and fast turnaround.
“We can turn them around and have them locked in a couple days,” he says.
“It’s the simplest application I’ve ever seen,” Young says. “Approval came through within a day. It was really slick. We avoided a lot of the professional fees that go along with selling bonds.”
While it’s too early for concrete stats, the city is happy with the results of its upgraded water meter system so far. There have been a few minor challenges throughout the process. During installs, city officials did find that their machines struggled to get readings from around 90 units. So, they had to get access to return to the venue to move them.
But that was a minor inconvenience compared with the benefits. And now that staff members don’t have to go door-to-door collecting meter readings, they’re catching up on a backlog of other projects, Priebe says. “Now that it’s done, it’s great!”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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