The neighborhood water meter reader may soon be a sight of the past as the city of Waco pursues a $12 million automated system that can read meters remotely 24 hours a day.

The city next month will apply to the Texas Water Development Board to finance the automated metering infrastructure with a long-term loan.

City officials said the money would be well-spent on a system that would conserve water, help identify and locate leaks, improve operational efficiency and help consumers put their water bill on a diet.

“It does a lot of good things for citizens as well as to the city,” utility director Lisa Tyer said. “It gives us real-time data. In theory, it will allow people to manage their water use. They can set their own water budget.

“It’s your money. If you want to have a $200 monthly water bill, you can have that, but if you don’t want to, you can monitor what’s happening.”

The Texas Water Development Board already has prioritized the project for consideration in its new competitive program for water improvements, known as the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, or SWIFT. The winners will be chosen this summer, and if Waco gets the nod, it will begin installing meters in phases in the next budget year.

Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III said the technology for automated meters has improved greatly during the past two decades, and the need for them has grown with the city.

“I think it’s time for us to do this,” Stem said. “I didn’t want to do it 15 years ago, because there were other things we needed to do. . . . We can’t do what we need to do in the next 20 years without this.”

The city’s pre-application to the development board estimates the new system would help the city save 1,462 acre-feet of water a year — 480 million gallons. That estimate assumes better water management by households and businesses and better detection of leaks in the system.

The city is proposing to combine the automated meter system with an “acoustic leak detection” system to help stanch the loss of millions of gallons of water each year.

Tyer said the city hasn’t yet calculated the cost savings from being able to read meters remotely. Currently, a crew of about 8 meter readers make their rounds every day, and others work to change meters and turn water taps off and on.

Some meter servicing will still be necessary after the switch, but most of the meter readers would be deployed to do preventive maintenance elsewhere in the water system, Tyer said.

She said the cost of manual meter reading goes up as cities spread out and meter readers have to drive more miles. And she said it’s not easy work.

“The staff tend to work by themselves,” Tyler said. “There are some safety issues. We’ve had guys jump into dumpsters to get away from dogs. We’ve had someone put glass in the meter box. There’s poison ivy, and they have to read in the rain.”

The city hasn’t chosen a vendor or particular technology for the meter system, but the meters would likely be powered by batteries with a 20-year lifespan. A transmitter on the meter would send a wireless signal to a collection point in the neighborhood, and that signal would be relayed to a centralized point.

The city would probably read meters every hour, allowing it to compile large data sets on how much water is being used in what part of the city.

Real-time information would also be available to customers through a web portal and possibly a customized email or text, Tyer said.

“People could set their own water budgets,” Tyer said. “Depending on the system, we might be able to send them a text saying ‘You’re 5,000 gallons away from your water goal.’ ”

That same system could alert homeowners that their water was running constantly at 2 in the morning, possibly indicating a leak.

Several cities in Texas have successfully implemented automated metering systems over the years, but they haven’t always provided real-time information to consumers, said Allen Berthold, research scientist with the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University.

Conservation challenge

“It’s definitely met expectations on cost savings to utilities,” Berthold said. “Conservation is a little more of a challenge. You have to ask, how do you appropriately provide information back to the homeowner in a secure way?”

The institute is working with cities such as Georgetown, Round Rock and Arlington on collecting, managing and sharing data from their automated meters.

Last summer, the city of Arlington launched a web portal that allowed customers to track their water usage, and for those who logged on, water consumption dropped 17 percent.

“That’s over what we expected,” Berthold said. “We expected maybe 5 percent reduction.”

Berthold said the systems help cities resolve questions customers have about their high water bills and increase awareness of how water is being wasted.

“A lot of people have no idea how much water they actually use,” he said. “A lot of people think their highest water use is in the shower, whereas their irrigation system may be going off at 5 or 6 in the morning and using far more. . . . Whenever you can log in and see your water use by the hour, you can really make decisions for your home.”

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