Meter readers to vanish like icemen?

"It's the meter reader." For 27,000 residents of two Detroit suburbs, Grosse Pointe and St. Clair Shores, this familiar cry may soon disappear.

They are considering the installation of small computers to read electric, water, and gas meters and send the information back, on the utilities' command, to a utility or municipality over either the phone lines or cable television wires. Thus, the utilities would eliminate the need for meter readers.

The computers, called microprocessors, were developed by Datavision Inc., a small company here.

Robert E. James, St. Clair Shores' city manager, says the town is considering the installation of the devices simply "as an economy measure." He notes that it may be less expensive for Datavision, rather than the city, to read the meters with its computers and send out the bills. If the city does switch over to the automatic system in the next six to nine months, he says, its five water meter readers would be absorbed into the municipal work force and then eventually eliminated through attrition, saving the city money.

Utilities all around the country are likewise experimenting with automatic meter reading devices. The Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, in a recent poll of its metering committee, found that 27 members were testing such devices.

Dr. William Blair, a project manager at the Electric Power Reliability Institute (EPRI), in Palo Alto, Calif., says some 100 utilities around the country have some form of experiment going on.

The institute, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, has been running a $12 million test at six utilities of three types of communications systems, involving power lines, telephone lines, and radio waves. Dr. Blair says the institute's main concern is the installation, maintenance, and performance characteristics of such devices.

It will publish a report early next year, and a midyear conference is scheduled to discuss the results. So far, Dr. Blair says, "all three techniques appear to be successful. The technical feasibility looks very promising."

"There is one more important aspect," he adds: "Even if the systems are technically feasible, are they cost-effective?" At this point, he concludes, "there is no evidence to prove either case." Yet, David Soffrain, an engineer at the Edison Electric Institute, says, "These devices might be expensive now, but they probably will be the wave of the future."

In fact at the Detroit Edison Company, Charles Mills, general supervisor for meter services, says there are some factors that could make the microprocessors economic before most people expect. He explains: "If for political or rate reasons we go to time-of-day pricing, where there is one price for electricity used during the peak hours and another price during off-peak, it could change the economics and push us a lot closer to using the devices."

Also, if the utilities could control the use of hot water heaters, for example, it would also affect the cost of the devices.

Mr. Mills says the electronic devices now cost about $200 apiece, compared with $20 for the old electromechanical ones. Furthermore, he says, there is very little maintenance needed on the old types of meters, many of which last 40 years. "Can you tell me that those electronic meters will last 40 years?" he asks.

Detroit Edison, with 1.7 million customers, was part of the EPRI experiment, using 700 electronic meters bought from Westinghouse. After the one-year experiment, Mr. Mills concludes, "The economic nut is a lot more difficult to crack than the technical one."

Another interested party, says Albert Morris, a public relations official at Carolina Power & Light Company, Raleigh, N.C., is the various public-utility commissions (PUCs). He says that "the PUCs would be interested if the devices could save money and provide a more accurate means of measurement of service, particularly if it involved charging on a time-of-day basis." So far, he says, the North Carolina Utilities Commission has not become involved in Carolina's experiments with the Westinghouse devices, including the remote control of appliances such as hot water heaters.

The major manufacturers of the new metering devices are Westinghouse (which produces them in Raleigh), General Electric, and Rockwell International.

Datavision, one of the newest entrants, started operations only two years ago. In the short time the company has been operating, it has received inquiries from utilities from California to North Carolina which are interested in seeing and testing the device. Municipally owned utilities, in particular, are interested in the device, since they have recently found themselves in a cost squeeze.

Not only does Datavision's device read meters, but it can also be used to connect burglar and fire alarms. A 10,000-unit condominium complex in suburban Detroit is having the burglar-fire alarm system installed. Still other functions of the device include the programming of hot water heaters to turn on during nonpeak hours.

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