SAY GOODBYE TO THE METER READER

* The meter reader, long a victim of snow storms, biting dogs, and dark basements, is being replaced. In many cities, gas, water, and electric utilities are converting to automated meter-reading systems.

Boston Gas was the first utility on the East Coast and the second in the country, after Minnegasco in Minneapolis, to test the radio-based automation, says Frank Arricale, a Boston Gas spokesman. In 1989, the utility began a $20-million program to outfit its 500,000 customers with the new device at no cost. Boston Gas expects to have equipped 245,00 customers by year-end and plans to complete the project by 1996.

The automated system works by attaching a small radio transmitter to the existing meter. The device then transmits the customer's meter reading to a passing van equipped with receivers and computers that record the data. The device was proven 99 percent accurate after testing it on 3,000 meters, Arricale says.

Utilities converting to automation say they expect substantial cost savings, productivity gains, and improved customer service.

``The efficiency factor is incredible,'' Arricale says. On average, a meter reader can manually check between 200 to 250 meters a day, he says, while a van can check up to 25,000 meters a day.

The automated system eliminates the need for utilities to estimate bills, which are sometimes on the high side. Utilities say a big problem has been handling the enormous number of customer complaints over billing; this in turn has generated a large and expensive second workload for utilities.

Automation does mean fewer jobs for meter readers. Prior to launching its program, Boston Gas employed 102 readers. By the end of the year, it will have reduced that number to 62. While the company will not be hiring any more meter readers, Arricale says it is gradually reassigning current employees to new positions within the utility. When the program is complete, he says Boston Gas will employ only about 20 meter readers.

Other utilities are taking automated meter reading a step further. Ameritech, formerly Illinois Bell Telephone Co., has developed automated gas, water, or electric meter reading over telephone lines.

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