Smithfield to pilot new water and electric meters

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2014 

Linda Barksdale reads a water meter in Smithfield on June 18.


— A new way to read electricity and water meters could save the town money in the long run – and consumers money from the get-go.

The Town Council agreed recently to pilot so-called “smart grid” technology from a company called NextGrid.

Currently, the town contracts with a private company that deploys three people every month to read about 10,000 meters – 4,000 electric and 6,000 water.

With the new technology, the town will be able to read meters, plus turn on and shut off service, from afar. NextGrid meters at homes and business will transmit consumption data by radio signal to town hall.

Customers, meanwhile, will be able to see how much water and electricity they use in real time through an online portal. Access to that information might prompt them to conserve water and electricity and thereby save money.

Ken Griffin, Smithfield’s public utilities director, is confident the technology will save the town money and perhaps allow it to lower water and electricity rates.

“It’s a more efficient way to manage and operate an electric and water utility, both from a customer billing and accounting standpoint, but also from an operational standpoint, because you know so much sooner about any unusual events in the system and you can respond immediately.”

Smithfield has been looking at the technology for more than a year but held off making a move until ElectriCities finished an analysis of the available technology. ElectriCities, which advises pubic power towns, said NextGrid was the best buy.

At its June meeting, a divided Town Council voted 4-3 to convert 50 meters to NextGrid technology at a cost of $12,000. Councilmen Travis Scott, Marlon Lee and Perry Harris voted no, with Scott saying he wanted to lower electricity rates immediately.

Fully converting to the new technology would cost Smithfield $2 million to $3 million, Griffin said, but the new meters would pay for themselves in about five and a half years, he added. Smithfield might also pilot technology from other companies before making a final decision, Griffin said.

Currently, Smithfield pays a company called Grid One Solutions about $154,000 a year to read town meters. The town would save that money if it adopted the new technology.

But the greater savings will come from efficiency in the water and electricity systems, Griffin said.

For example, the technology will immediately detect a water-line break, allowing the town to act before thousands of gallons of water spill into the ground. Also, the technology will know exactly where a tree has fallen on a power, saving the town the cost of searching for the downed line.

Smithfield will likely keep one meter reader on staff for those occasion when someone needs to check on a problem in person.

Elsewhere in Johnston County, Benson is already piloting NextGrid’s meters, and Town Manager Matt Zapp called the technology “fantastic.” The town has sent out a request for proposals to convert all meters, a project Zapp hopes to complete by July 2015.

Already, Zapp said, the pilot program has helped at least one Benson customer, a laundromat where the technology detected a spike in usage on a Sunday. The town contacted the owner, who quickly traced the problem to a leaking washing machine. Without the technology, Zapp said, the owner might not have known about the problem until his next monthly bill arrived.

In Benson, which has about 3,700 meters, the new system will pay for itself within four years, Zapp said. “It’s going to help us give the residents a better understanding of their bill,” he said. “It gives you, the customer, the chance to control the usage.”

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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