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ORCHARD PARK TAPS INTO COMPUTERS FOR IMPROVED WAY TO READ WATER METERS

When he heard about transponding water meters, Orchard Park Public Works Superintendent Paul Barker had no trouble persuading village trustees to spring for $162,998 to replace all the old meters in the system.

As a result, the village may be the first in Western New York to install the computerized devices.

"We needed new meters -- some of the ones we've been pulling out are as much as 50 years old, and the older a meter gets the slower it reads, so we were not getting 100 percent water use readings," Barker said.

"Then, there's the matter of time. It took two men three weeks to try to get all the meters read, and even then we missed a lot," he said. "People are not home, they would not fill out the cards we left or call in their readings. This way, once we are done, one man takes about a day and a half, and he gets 100 percent accurate readings, too."

That's important in a village fighting to bring its still-creaky water system up to modern standards, fight water-main breaks year-round and still deliver county-bought water for a reasonable price -- or without significantly raising taxes through a water bond issue.

Now, with two quarters of billing experience behind them, most of the glitches ironed out and only about 10 percent of the village's 1,068 water customers yet to be upgraded, Diane Jewett, the woman responsible for sending out the bills, is reaping another benefit:

"The bills can get out in time, and I don't have to look up the ledgers and transfer every single reading into the computer system by hand," she said. "That used to take weeks."

The trick is a "black box" -- actually gray, in this case -- attached to each standard meter. It reads the meter constantly and sends out a low-power radio signal.

Come meter-reading time, one man can slowly cruise the village streets with a hand-held device that looks like a cell phone on steroids. As it passes each meter, it sends a coded signal to the reading device.

As Barker said, instead of two men taking three weeks, it will now take one man about a day and a half to read the meters.

"That's one-tenth the labor cost," Barker said. "We have to get ready for the 21st century, and the only way to save money is to cut labor costs with technology like this."

The system is needed in this age of two-earner families, too. Water meters have to be indoors to prevent freezing and are usually in basements. With no one home when the meter reader comes, more than half the meters did not get read by village personnel, leading to low billing.

The new system has caused some problems because of that.

"One customer was furious when he got his water bill last time," Ms. Jewett said. "It was $500. We'd been unable to get in to read his meter for more than two years and were charging him the 6,000-gallon minimum when he'd been using more like 30,000 gallons each quarter."

She expects similar tales this time around when the newest remetered homes and businesses get their bills Oct. 10 and learn their old meters were either unread or had simply stopped working, so that the village was estimating a quarterly charge.

The bite will be a little higher this quarter, too: $3.41 per 1,000 gallons of water, up from $3.06 due to new rates imposed by the Erie County Water Authority. Sewer bills, keyed to water use, will remain at 68 cents per 1,000 gallons.

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