Automated water meters would provide more data to Lawrence customers, allow for tiered rate plans

photo by: Journal-World Illustration

Water meters and billing in Lawrence are set to get a multimillion-dollar update, paving the way for changes to the city’s utility rate structure.

The city’s 2019 proposed budget, which the Lawrence City Commission is scheduled to adopt next week, includes $4.45 million toward the installation of automated utility meters. That amount is in addition to $6.42 million allocated for the project as part of the 2018 budget, bringing the total amount close to $11 million.

Deputy Director of Utilities Mike Lawless said the city has about 34,000 residential and commercial utility customers, and that utility staff must check the current mechanical water meters manually for monthly usage and anytime there is a stop or transfer in service. Lawless said that the new automated meters, coupled with a new billing system, will capture and transmit usage data digitally instead.

“We’ll be able to take that digital information and send it through the communication of whatever system that we choose, so that we don’t have to have a person walk out there and actually read the dials,” Lawless said.

Lawless said that currently the department has seven full-time positions that handle meter reading and other meter issues, and that he anticipates that the department will eventually be able to reduce that to five. He said that it’s estimated that the efficiencies of the new metering and billing system will cover the costs after about 12 years.

The new meter and billing systems would also allow for changes to the city’s rate structure that are currently not feasible. In 2016, the commission indicated to city staff that it was interested in adopting some form of tiered water rate structure that would charge higher rates for the highest consumers as a way to encourage conservation. Lawless said the current system is not able to handle the data and billing required for tiered billing, but that the new metering and billing system could.

In April, the City Commission approved the purchase of new software that will manage customer billing information and meter data. The new billing system will include an online customer portal where customers can view or pay their bill, view usage history, update contact information, and start, stop or transfer service, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

Currently, utility customers are only provided with their total monthly usage at the end of each billing cycle. Lawless said the new automated metering and billing system will allow utility customers to monitor their use much more closely, day by day or even hour by hour. He said having that data can help customers better manage their water use and potentially alert customers of leaks or other issues.

“They will have access to better data, more data, more granular data,” Lawless said. “Right now the data is one time per month, so if you’re a resident and you have a leaking toilet, you may not know that until you get your water bill and you see a change in your water usage.”

There are several steps required before the new metering and billing system would be put in place, and any changes to the billing structure would need to be approved by the commission. Lawless said the first step is putting the new billing system in place, and that the new automated meter technology will be installed after that. He said the new billing system is expected to launch in October of 2019 and will be in place about six months before automated meter installations begin.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved the first reading of the ordinances needed to adopt the city’s 2019 budget. Commissioners could still make changes to the budget at their meeting Aug. 14, where they will approve the second reading of the ordinances and formally adopt the budget.

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