Foes fight the tide of ‘smart’ water meters
Often when new meters are installed, bills go up even without a rate increase, because old meters can read lower levels of water than people are using.
Moves to modernize water utilities across the U.S. are coming under fire from opponents who say the costs will outpace the benefits of new technology.
At issue are smart meters, new devices that measure water usage digitally, then transmit the data wirelessly to the utility.
Industry officials tout their efficiency — utilities can save money by getting rid of manual meter readers, for one thing. They also say the new meters will help residents conserve water and monitor their usage online.
“If I call in right now and I say, ‘My water bill went up by $100, why is that?'” said Chris McNeil, senior account manager with energy giant Siemens, which packages water meters with billing software. “There’s no system in place to be able to answer that” in cities with older billing technology.
Opponents, though, dismiss these as talking points with little basis in reality.
“That’s really twisted — because really they’re going to raise our bills,” says Maria Powell, an environmental scientist from Madison, Wis. “The whole premise that people are going to go online and look at their water usage day to day, it’s baloney. Most people aren’t going to do that.”
The opposition mirrors that of fights against smart meters used by electric companies. Residents have bitterly opposed electric smart meters across the country, with some success. StopSmartMeters.org, an advocacy group in California, reports that 13 city and county governments in the state have banned smart meter installations within their areas. The fight over meters in Texas has become so heated that the Public Utilities Commission keeps reports on smart meters prominently displayed on its homepage. Web visitors can read staff reports extolling the virtues of smart meters, alongside more than 600 collected filings on the subject, many of them petitions from opponents.
Pike Research, a firm specializing in clean technology research, cited the fights over electric smart meters in revising downward its own projections for the industry. But the firm still expects smart water meters to boom in coming years to an installed base of 29.9 million meters by 2017 from 10.3 million in 2011.
Delores Kester, also of Madison, complains that residents will bear high up-front costs, as utilities go about changing out thousands of functioning analog meters.
“It’s tough times for a lot of people,” said Kester, who organized a petition opposing the meters. “Atlanta had non-stop problems with huge water rate increases.”
Indeed, the opposition comes at a time when residents are spending larger and larger shares of their household budget on water. Costs are easily outpacing inflation, according to Fitch Ratings, a market research group. In the most extreme cases like Atlanta, residents are paying three times more for water today than they were 10 years ago, as utilities grapple with costly infrastructure needs.
Often when new meters are installed, bills go up even without a rate increase because old meters can read lower levels of water than people are using.
When new meters were installed in Greenville, Miss., some residents’ bills doubled, increasing by hundreds of dollars in some cases, according to reports from a local newspaper, the Delta Democrat Times. And in nearby Jackson, Miss., smart meters are projected to generate $60 million over 15 years, money that will be earmarked for work on the city’s crumbling water and sewer system, according to city documents.
Opponents also complain of privacy issues, and they say the wireless technology used in them — which is not unlike signals emitted by your cellphone — can cause health problems. Federal regulators insist the signals are safe, and health researchers haven’t found a consistent link between radio frequencies and cancer, as opponents suggest.
Still, Powell and Kester successfully lobbied their public utility to allow residents to opt out of the new meters if they wish — for a $7.78 monthly fee.
“We might have wanted more if it was Christmas,” Kester said. “But we worked together to develop the policy that we have.”
Eason also reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.