Fairmont set to replace all of its meters

CHANGEOVER — Marty Meixell, electric distribution superintendent for Fairmont Public Utilities, displays the new Aclara Technologies electric meters for commercial and residential customers that will replace existing units over the next five years.

FAIRMONT — This spring, Fairmont Public Utilities will begin the monumental task of replacing all its electric and water meters for residential and commercial customers.

The process of switching out between 13,000 and 14,000 meters, as well as load management devices and lift station monitors, will be phased in over five years.

“The cost is just under $2.5 million for all of the meters and the load management devices,” said Troy Nemmers, city engineer/public works director. “We started the planning process with the 2020 budget to include funds to get all the infrastructure in place and meters for testing to make sure everything works as we anticipate. Once that’s in place, more meters will be installed.”

As soon as weather permits, Marty Meixell, Fairmont’s electric distribution superintendent, will have his crew out installing six 65-foot poles in the community to serve as control units to read all Public Utilities meters, including those by East Chain and north of Fairmont.

“We’ll get the poles up in the spring, and we should have most of the radio equipment shipped to us by then,” Meixell said. “Once we get the radios up and ‘talking,’ we’ll put a smattering of these new units out to make sure the system is working properly before we fully deploy it.”

Representatives of Aclara Technologies, supplier of the new units, will be on hand for the system’s debut to ensure everything functions correctly.

The impetus to replace the utility meters was prompted by necessity.

“The meters are starting to run end-of-life as well as the software that goes with it,” Nemmers said. “All of our reading software that we use now is becoming obsolete, and it’s not being supported. All of that is required to be upgraded. The lift station monitoring system is old, and we’re having trouble communicating with our lift stations.”

“The radio-read meters that we have right now will run about 15 years,” Meixell said. “They replaced the old mechanical meters with the dials that would run a long time because they were heavily built and sturdy but not real accurate. These new ones are all solid state. They just run on a computer chip. You can’t even begin to compare the accuracy.”

Measuring electrical and water usage evolved from the meter reader going in a basement to read every meter individually to the current system of having a technician drive or walk through a neighborhood and use a radio device to record meter readings.

“That could take up to two weeks to get all the meters read. When the new system is operational, all readings will be sent here (City Hall) at 12:01 a.m. on the first of the month,” Nemmers said.

Collecting electric and water usage data will be greatly simplified, but so will the disconnection process for delinquent accounts.

“We disconnect about 30 people on average every month,” Meixell said. “If the meter is on the outside of the house, we can just lock the meter. If the meter is inside and we can’t get access to it, now we have to send a two-man crew out with a bucket truck.”

“All the new residential meters we install will have a remote disconnect so we can disconnect from the computer system here,” Nemmers said. “The utility crews aren’t going to have to go out to do any disconnects or put any padlocks on. We can control everything from here.”

But before the streamlined process of reading or disconnecting the new meters can be implemented, they first must be installed.

“That’s going to be a challenge. There’s no easy way to switch over 13,000 meters in a quick time period,” Nemmers said. “We’re going to have to make contact with people and get access to houses as part of this process.”

Even if the meter is outside, the resident will be aware of the change.

“We will still make contact with the person at the house. There’s a lot of people that do business out of their house, and we’ve got to shut the power off for about a minute,” Meixell said.

Several notification options are being considered, including individual mailings and inserts in monthly utility bills.

“If we can get 50 percent of our customers to respond, we can hit those 50 percent. Get those done first, and then try and make contact with the rest,” Nemmers said. “We’ll have more public outreach once we come up with our plan and schedule on how to notify people.”