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  • Jordan D. Smith

City Utilities Upgrading to Smart Meters

Some people use the term quaint to describe Portland. It’s a good word--quaint. It conjures images of small town life and simpler days past. However it also can be taken to mean old fashioned. One way Portland has been bucking that negative association of the word is in upgrading to the newest technologies like “smart meters” in city operated utilities.

Currently city operated water and electric utilities are metered using analog or digital meters on the outside of your house. That means that once a month a city employee has to physically come to your house and “read the meter,” to determine how much electricity and water you’ve used which is what is reflected on your utility bill. This is a time consuming, inefficient process and prone to problems for instance if a backyard is locked (guilty!) and the employee can’t reach the meter. For that reason some city residents opt to read their own meters and report it to the city on a card dropped off to city hall once a month. This requires the city to rely upon the honor system in a way that is certainly quaint. Both of these options though are on the way out the door in the next few years.

The city has been slowly replacing water meters with digital “smart meters” which can be read remotely. According to City Manager Tutt Gorman, these meters can be read by an employee using a hand held device which picks up a short range radio signal transmitted from the water meter (usually in your basement) as the city employee walks or drives by.

Likewise, the electric department has been working toward modernization. Gorman says that they have been evaluating several options including a radio signal meter similar to the technology used in the new water meters as one option. The electric department is also looking at meters that transmit the reading via cellular technology or hook up to a fiber optic internet connection. While the work is ongoing in both these efforts Gorman says that the city plans to finish within the next three years. We reached out to Consumers Energy for information on the gas utilities efforts toward modernizing but did not hear back from them as of this writing.

Regardless of what technology the electric department decides on for the upgraded meters two things are sure to change. One, obviously is more consistently accurate utility billing which is good for both residents and the city bottom line. The other is that meter readers will have a lot less work to do. Currently meter reading is done by members of the Ambulance Department. This arrangement brings in additional revenue to support ambulance services and is a duty that fits well with the duties of the EMT’s and paramedics to who can read meters when on duty but not on an emergency call. According to Gorman, “as we integrate and update to smart meters, the need for manual reads will decrease.”

If mention of fiber optic internet capable electric meters piqued your interest Gorman says that the city is still working toward the goal of establishing a city operated fiber network. However, he says that upgrading utility meters is an ongoing project that does not rely on having a fiber network. That option is just one being considered.

One potential boon for the effort could be the American Jobs Plan legislation currently being negotiated between Congress and the Biden Administration. A major aspect of that proposal is expanding broadband internet service to rural communities. “It is unclear at this point if the City qualifies for the various broadband initiatives as we are waiting for guidance from [the US] Treasury [department],” Gorman says, “however, like with all projects, we will pursue grants and all available funding to reduce the burden on the City and its taxpayers.”

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