Madison to install ‘smart meters’ to measure water use

Madison to install ‘smart meters’ to measure water use

The way water use in Madison is measured and billed is about to change in a big way.

Beginning in July, the Madison Water Utility will begin installing “smart meters” in all of its 66,000 customers’ homes at a cost of $14 million.

Currently, water customers use 10 billion gallons each year, some 30 million each day. Madison Water Utility officials have set a goal of reducing water usage by 20 percent by 2020, and they believe the new metering technology is key to making it happen.

“It helps us diagnose leaks and system problems. It helps consumers know the impact of if they take shorter showers or if they buy a new appliance,” said Tom Heikkinen, general manager for the Madison Water Utility.

Once the system is in place, customers will begin receiving monthly bills. Currently, customers only get an accounting of their usage every six months, making it hard to tell how changes in water use habits result in changes in cost for consumers.

To help make the change, Madison Water Utility staff, working with contractors, will visit every customer by appointment. In basements, they’ll change the meter head in most cases, but about 10 percent of customers will get an entirely new meter. Once the meter’s connected, workers will run a wire up to the floor joists and install a transmitter the size of a pack of cocktail napkins.

The transmitters will then send a signal every minute of the day. Once an hour, one of those signals will be picked up by a receiver mounted around the city, such as receivers on the tops of water tanks and towers. Each burst of information lasts only a millisecond, using about half a watt of energy each time. That’s about a fourth of what it takes to transmit a cellphone signal, Madison Water Utility officials said.

“As an indicator of just how little energy they use, the battery in the thing is guaranteed to last 20 years. Imagine your cellphone battery not needing to be charged for 20 years,” Heikkinen said.

However, a small yet vocal community has doubts about smart meters and electromagnetic radiation in general.

Catherine Kleiber said she is bothered by exposure to signals and stray voltage, so much so that when We Energies told her family they had no choice but to have a smart electrical meter on their farm, they went off the grid. Now, solar panels and liquid propane power their home. Some farm tasks are taken care of by generators.

Kleiber said she has radiofrequency sickness. Doctors diagnosed it as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She said she is far from alone among those who feel exposure to electromagnetic fields harms their health.

“People don’t sleep well. They get headaches. Sometimes, they’re migraine headaches. Sometimes, they’re other sorts of headaches,” Kleiber said.

Her family does not use cellphones, cordless phones, microwaves or wireless Internet. Before moving to a 48v DC power system with the switch to solar, they installed filtering devices that they said helped them manage their stray energy concerns.

In May 2011, the World Health Organization released a report saying cellphones and other electromagnetic fields could possibly cause cancer in humans, calling for further study and monitoring. A 1999 Health Canada report study found even low-energy EMF, sometimes far below accepted thresholds, could cause biochemical change in cells. The study did not make a link to adverse health effects, and scientists WISC-TV spoke with said they aren’t aware of a definitive link.

Kleiber considers herself among those who were concerned about other modern products that people only later learned might be dangerous. She and others are part of a small, but growing grassroots movement for legislation allowing customers to opt out of having the systems installed.

“Nobody wants to believe the first people about anything that’s a beloved product. It’s convenient. It’s fun, right? But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. People who don’t want to see effects are very quick to label people who see effects as crazy,” Kleiber said.

As far as the Madison Water Utility and the city of Madison are concerned, there is no health risk posed by the smart meters.

“There just isn’t any scientific basis for being concerned from a health perspective,” Heikkinen said.

He said he more readily understands privacy concerns and wants customers to know that transmissions are encrypted and the data secure. While some “smart” systems allow for radio-controlled valves to shut water off, Madison’s system will not.

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“We can’t control the way anyone uses water,” Heikkinen said.

One day, the city may be able to move toward conservation-oriented billing, possibly raising water rates during a drought. For now, the Madison Water Utility officials said they hope they change their conversation habits on their own.

“Just because they’re more aware of the impact of watering their lawns and how often they do laundry and so forth,” Heikkinen said.

To learn more about the Madison Water Utility smart meters, go to http://cityofmadison.com/water/programs/projectH2O/