Drive-by meter readings on tap

In Plano, Texas, technology is changing the tedious and time-consuming ritual

of walking from house to house to read water meters.

By September, the city plans to attach to 7,300 small electronic units

to existing water meters. Developed by Richardson, Texas-based Datamatic.com,

the units would electronically transmit data as city meter readers drive

by.

Johnny Kemp, the city's meter reading supervisor, said a worker can

gather data from 200 meters in about an hour by driving by at about 20 miles

per hour. It would take a worker on foot more than half a day to check all

those meters, he said.

Although gas and electric utilities have used radio frequency meter

reading for about 15 years, automated devices for water meters have only

been developed in the past six years, said Todd Onsa, marketing director

for Datamatic.com. In the past year, Onsa said he's seen a growing interest

among municipalities to implement such technology. At least 50 municipalities

from St. Helena, Calif., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., have ordered the company's

product, which can be attached to any existing meter. The devices send out

a radio signal every three seconds to an antenna affixed to the top of a

vehicle, Kemp said. A laptop computer within the vehicle logs the data.

Datamatic.com's product can store 74 days' worth of hourly usage data.

So if a customer disputes a bill, the city can check a digital paper trail.

Located about 20 miles north of Dallas, Plano has 71,000 water meters.

One part-time and seven full-time readers monitor them in business and residential

districts covering 73 square miles, Kemp said. City workers do about 830,000

readings a year.

About 10 percent of the area — most of the business district — will

be outfitted with the devices. Kemp said the city would like to expand into

the larger residential sector, and if it did, the system would pay for itself

in about six years or so. The devices cost about $100 each.

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