After years of planning and a four-year successful pilot program, Elizabeth City officials are finally embarking on a $8.3 million program to make every water and electric meter in the city “smarter.”

City Council authorized city officials last week to begin contract negotiations for replacing the city’s nearly 13,580 electric meters and 8,000 water meters with ones that are a lot more technologically advanced. Relying on the latest in communications technology, the new meters are designed to improve service for customers while also providing more system control for the city.

Once both water and electric systems are in place sometime next year, customers will be able to monitor their electric and water usage in real time, meaning fewer surprises when their bills arrive. It means customers can make choices about whether to turn on their air conditioning or water their lawn based on what their current usage is. It also means if there’s a problem with the infrastructure supplying their house — a broken water pipe under their house, for example — it can be caught immediately, saving them on charges for excessive water use.

The new systems are expected to result in major benefits for the city as well. The new technology not only will catch leaks in the water system automatically, it also will increase the accuracy of both metering and billing. City officials estimate the new meters, because they’ll be more accurate than the current ones, some of which are 60 years old, will generate an additional $5 million in water revenues alone over 10 years.

There will be significant benefits to the electrical system as well. The smart technology will allow the city to pinpoint power outages in real time, meaning officials will know exactly where the power is out, shortening the time for restoring electricity to customers without it.

The technology also will allow the city to manage the electricity load across its entire electric system more efficiently. The smart system, for example, will provide information about the electric load on each transformer. If the transformer is too small for its current load, it can be replaced with a larger one. If it’s too large for its load, one that’s better sized can be installed in its place.

With the move to this new communications-based utility system, one concern is the impact on city employees, namely meter readers. It was good to hear city officials say implementing the new system won’t result in any job losses. Those who read meters will be absorbed into other jobs in the city workforce.

One issue that still needs to be addressed, however, is what to do about reconnection fees. Currently when a customer’s electric service is disconnected, a city employee has to physically go to their residence or business and perform the disconnection. To get the service restored, an employee has to return and reconnect the power. The city charges a fee for this.

With the smart system, however, disconnections and reconnections can be made with the flip of a switch, meaning no employee will be required to make a physical visit. Should the city continue, then, to charge a reconnection fee?

One other issue that’s certain to come up as the meter conversion project moves forward is ensuring user familiarity. In order to get the most benefit out of the new system, customers will need to know how it works. While we’re sure a lot of customers will be able to figure out how their new smart water and electric meters work, many will not.

That’s why we’re hoping the city will embark on a major education campaign prior to implementation that explains how the new smart meters work and the benefits that can accrue from learning to use them. While online tutorials would be of benefit to some customers, many others likely would benefit more from in-person tutorials. The city should consider holding a number of them at venues across the city prior to implementation, inviting customers to come in and learn first hand how these smart meters can make them “smarter” utility users.

— The Daily Advance