Not your father’s water meter

Illinois American Water field service tech Don Catanese demonstrates a mobile reader that is capable of reading meters transmitting from distances of up to 1,500 feet. Photos by Emily Cikanek

When one of his customers received a whale of a water bill for more than $21,000, Don Catanese, a 31-year veteran field service tech, knew something was amiss. Typically, the monthly bill for this industrial user comes in around $3,500.

Catanese’ astute observation was partly due to experience: He began his career with Citizens Utilities, now Illinois American Water (IAW), in 1980, when he walked from house to house in his hip-hugger pants and platform shoes, manually reading each customer’s meter. That was the norm back then, and IAW employed six readers who, just like Catanese, embodied the cliché of a meter reader, getting chased by dogs and questioned by customers all while trying to handwrite readings in a ledger.

Today that image is becoming outdated, as most public and private utilities are moving to automated reading. Not only does automated reading save meter readers from such indignities as ankle-biting dogs, it also provides myriad benefits to both water providers and customers, including greater efficiency, reduced costs, and state-of-the-art technology to capture and analyze critical data.

A meter with a wireless transmitter

There are two types of reading automation technologies: mobile read systems and fixed network systems. Through the mobile read system, meter readers collect readings by driving past the account, whose meter is transmitting the reading every eight to 14 seconds. Reading signals are typically transmitted over a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 feet. Depending upon factors such as housing density and driving speeds, mobile read systems typically can collect between 4,500 and 7,000 reads per day. For comparison, a meter reader walking a route reads between 75 and 450 reads per day, depending on the location of the meter. Utilities tend to collect mobile read data based on its reading and billing cycle, which is four to 12 reads per year.

fixed network system relies on the installation of a dedicated communications network throughout the utility’s service territory, which automatically brings the meter reading back to the utility. Fixed network systems collect hourly meter readings regardless of the billing cycle, amounting to 8,760 reads per year per account. Though hourly meter readings are collected, the utilities’ billing department uses only four to 12 readings for billing invoices. The additional reading information helps utilities find leaks, determine final bills for customers moving out of properties, monitor for usage when water restrictions are in force, and identify water theft.

Regardless of which type of automated system a utility uses, both deliver great benefits, chief among them increased reading efficiency and accuracy, the ability to obtain actual readings, and reduced worker injuries and damage to customers’ property. For customers, it’s less invasive. “The radio system of meter reading is the most current, enabling readers to get quick accurate readings without interrupting business or residential life,” Catanese explains.

Another dual benefit is that automated reading converts data into useful action that reduces operating costs and improves service. Data collected from automated systems are actual readings with accuracy in the 99.5 to 99.9 percent range, which reduces the need for billing adjustments and prevents utilities from needing to estimate invoices. Customers often question estimated bills, costing considerable time, both on their part and on the part of the utility’s service representatives. Re-reads and other account investigations further increase operating costs and disrupt customers’ days. Utilities also can increase the frequency of reading and billing, providing customers with smaller, more frequent bills – for instance, monthly, rather than bi-monthly or quarterly – which can be easier to work into a household’s or business’ budget and improves the utility’s cash flow.

According to Ken Molli, a metering expert at Veolia Water, D.C. Water reports that their fixed network system, completed in 2004, has reduced customer service call center contacts by 34 percent and reduced average talk time from 12 minutes to 2 minutes. What’s more, moving from quarterly to monthly meter reading and obtaining actual reads has reduced bad debt from $23.6 million to $5.3 million and cut costs for “change in occupancy” by 90 percent. One of the major benefits of this additional data is to solve the problem on the first call.

Data also helps detect and prevent leaks in the system. Utilities that note unusually high water use can alert clients to potential leaks, helping them avoid unnecessarily high water bills. Giving the customer actual information as to when the excessive usage has occurred tends to solve the issue immediately, without additional field investigations that require an appointment or follow-up phone call.

Residents with meters save an average of 50 percent on their water bills compared with those without meters. Customers who know they can rely on their meter for reliable, accurate data are more likely to pay attention to and adjust their usage. The shock of just how much water is being used – or wasted, as is the case with a leaky toilet – also can lead customers to make choices that ultimately save water and money.

“Many customers are very surprised to hear how much water loss there really is in a leaky toilet until they receive the high bill reflecting a bad or worn part,” says Catanese. “For about $10 per toilet in replacement parts, a customer can literally save hundreds of dollars a year.”

While automated meter reading systems require an up-front investment, most pay for themselves within 8 to 10 years. The mobile read system has lower initial capital costs, making it a more cost-effective, short-term solution. Fixed systems take a bit longer to recoup the initial outlay, but they are seven times more cost effective in resolving customer billing disputes, 35 times more cost effective for detecting meter tampering, and six times more cost effective monitoring water restrictions, according to Molli– all points a utility must consider before deciding its path. Fixed network systems cost 20 to 50 percent more than mobile read systems, but the price differential is narrowing, Molli notes. From recent industry reports, such as the Scott Report that tracks reading automation product shipments, more than 50 percent of U.S. water utilities in the U.S. have reading automation systems, of which about 10 percent are fixed network systems. However, more utilities are seeking the benefits of fixed systems and taking the plunge.

Clearly, the investment in automation is worth it – for utilities, customers and the rest of the region. Meter reading can go a long way toward keeping exorbitant water bills at bay and encouraging water conservation.  Thanks in part to his experience and in part to IAW’s automated reading system, Catanese did solve the mystery of the $21,000 water bill: The management company had a leaking solenoid valve that gushed 40 gallons per minute for about 48 hours. Nearly 140,000 thousand gallons of water were lost, but it could have been much, much worse. As soon as the system alerted Catanese to the leak, the company fixed their leaky valve, saving thousands of gallons in future water loss and thousands of dollars to boot.

Read about the future of water meters in the City of Chicago. >>

Read a brief history of water meter technology. >>

WOWW Factors


A leak as small as 1/8-inch in diameter can waste more than 3,500 gallons of water per day.


Full city metering could reduce Chicago’s water consumption by 20 or 30 million gallons a day.


Chicago residents who choose to install a water meter through the MeterSave program receive the meter absolutely free!

Conservation Tips

Check the meter frequently! Being mindful of how much water your household is using can help ensure your water usage matches your actual water needs. You might be using a lot more water than you think.

Perform a leak check. Turn off all the taps in the residence, than look at your meter. If it is still turning, there might be leak. According to the EPA, more than 1.25 trillion gallons of water leak from U.S. homes each year.

Look for the WaterSense label when replacing old toilets, showerheads, and sink faucets. These products perform as well or better than their less efficient counterparts and are 20 percent more water efficient. To test it, track your meter reading before and after installation of WaterSense products and see how much water you save first hand.


How to Read Your Meter

Automatic Meter Reading


Water Wise: What We Need to Know About our Water Resources

City of Chicago Water Resource Management

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3 Responses to Not your father’s water meter

  1. Pingback: Meter reading in Chicago |

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  3. Pingback: Newark, Ohio Water System Upgrading To Automated Meters

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