City to replace worn-out water meters with ultrasonic ones

Amanda Boone public utilities director Elizabeth City

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, May 13, 2019

Elizabeth City will be upgrading its water meters a little ahead of schedule following a vote of City Council last week.

Councilors voted 7-0 to allow the Public Utilities Department to install new, “ultrasonic” water meters as it replaces worn-out, mechanical meters over the coming weeks.

The vote allows the city to install the same meters that would eventually support a new “smart meter” system offered by the firm, Badger Meter, of Milwaukee. If that project is approved by council, it would cost well over $1 million and start during the 2019-20 budget year.

Public Utilities Director Amanda Boone presented the request to councilors on Thursday. She explained the city has long relied on Badger for water meters, specifically mechanical ones that measure water flow through nutating discs. “Nutating” refers to how the discs move to measure flow.

The city has many mechanical meters that are old and need replacing, but the Public Utilities Department has been reluctant to order the old-style meters when it plans to upgrade to ultrasonic meters, Boone explained. Ultrasonic meters measure flow with sound waves beyond human hearing. They’re both more accurate and longer-lasting, she said.

The meters will also transmit meter readings to nearby cell towers, meaning the new meters rely on existing infrastructure maintained and upgraded at no cost to the city — another plus, Boone said.

However, she and City Manager Rich Olson acknowledged the new meters are more expensive. Olson estimated after Thursday’s meeting that ultrasonic meters would cost $220 each, versus around $145 each for mechanical meters.

The ultrasonic, cellular-based meters’ deployment would also be a step toward implementing a smart grid for water service, similar to the electrical smart grid the city is planning through a separate company, Nexgrid.

Notably, the city had planned to use Nexgrid for water meters as well, but city officials reported in February that Nexgrid’s water meters weren’t reliable enough and recommended Badger instead.

With the smart grid’s implementation — phase one of which would cost about $1 million — the city would also fully tap into Badger’s Beacon software, allowing real-time usage monitoring and leak detection. The system also offers an online portal for customers to view their consumption and other information. Boone noted the city already has 13 meters deployed in a pilot project, and the devices already have helped customers quickly find leaks.

Councilors Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton initially expressed concerns about the request. Walton argued city staff should have given the council more time to consider whether to approve the Badger meters, and Horton said the item should have been presented at a work session.

Trying to address those concerns, Olson and Boone reiterated they weren’t asking for a full commitment to Badger, only to buy some of its meters for routine replacements. In effect, using Badger’s ultrasonic meters for meter replacements will expand the pilot project and show the benefits or problems of proceeding with a smart grid, they explained.

Councilors agreed to Boone’s request, but said they wanted Badger’s new meters installed at their own homes, so they could be part of the pilot project and see how the new meters work. Boone agreed to do so.