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Buffalo #15 In the News!

Meter Man: Expert witness on the new technology!

Tom Kelly

Job and Employer: Strategic coordinator for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in Laurel, Md. Some of my duties include serving as a meter expert, testifying in cases related to water meter performance, and helping customers who experience difficulties and believe the meter is at fault.

Is metering a hot-button issue? It appears so. In the last few weeks I’ve been getting a number of media calls from around the country. The shared theme seems to be, “What’s wrong with the new meters being installed? Why are customers receiving such high bills?” After doing a bit of research, I’ve been finding a common link -- it’s not a meter problem, but a programming issue. What exactly is the programming issue? When an AMR or AMI device is installed to read a meter electronically, part of the installation procedure requires programming the correct resolution to ensure the meter is read and billed properly. For example, my utility’s meters use 10, 100, and 1,000-gallon registers. If the resolution for a 10-gallon register is erroneously programmed as a 100-gallon register, the result is a movement of the decimal point one space to the right, and the customer’s indicated consumption is multiplied by a factor of 10! You can imagine the reaction of someone used to receiving a $60 water bill when they get a new bill for $600! The result is your worst customer-relations nightmare, compounded by the loss of customer confidence. What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on? It’s one that’s ramping up now. WSSC is about to implement AMI technology on more than 450,000 accounts located within a 1,000 square mile service area. Once installed and fully operational, the technology is going to change the way our utility does business. The amount of data available may be daunting at first, but as we learn how to fully use the data, it will give us the information we need to operate more efficiently and serve our customers even better. It sounds like your utility is very invested in your efforts and its metering program. Water meters are quite literally our cash registers, used to measure and document each customer’s consumption. In order to ensure that our customers are billed fairly, all meters must register accurately. As technology advances, we need to proceed with a degree of caution. Will it perform as advertised? Will it provide what we need and expect? What other factors may have an impact on performance? When considering the investment new technology requires, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our customers to minimize even the remotest possibility of failure. Any advice for utility managers transitioning to the new metering technology? In order to avoid the possibility of a customer relations fiasco, take time to ensure the technology will provide your utility and customers with the results you want, need, and expect. When installing, ensure that quality is given the same consideration as productivity. Neglect to do so, and you’ll regret it. Can you briefly describe the sector’s metering history? Different methods of metering have been around for a very long time. Different types of mechanical meters evolved such as propeller, turbine, multi and single jet, positive displacement, and combinations of those for specific applications. For decades afterward, methods of measuring water through a meter were pretty static, while the technology for reading meters evolved. However, the need for increased accuracy has gradually pushed the development and implementation of non-mechanical meters into new applications. How did you become interested in meters? I have a pretty extensive mechanical background. After working on equipment at WSSC for a few years, I realized how short the career ladder was in the company’s mobile equipment division. I saw a job opening for the Meter Shop Supervisor position, discovered I met the qualifications, applied, and got the job. This was unfamiliar territory, but I jumped in with both feet. Once I got my hands dirty by disassembling, testing, and repairing meters, and was able to wrap my head around the principles of operation, I was off and running! That was more than 26 years ago, and the rest is history. Aside from metering, are you involved in any other projects in the water sector? I’m a Water Buffalo. We’re bikers who raise money for Water for People and other groups that assist others in gaining access to safe and reliable sources of drinking water. Did you ride to ACE with the Buffalos? Yes, every ACE since ACE07. The people who ride with the herd are honest, caring and generous. Riders commit to raising funds in order to participate. Food, fuel, hotel, tolls, maintenance and any repair costs are borne by the individuals to maximize contributions to the charitable groups. Tell us about your experiences on one of the rides. I can honestly say the ride to ACE15 in Anaheim was the trip of a lifetime and I had a ball. We had to deal with wind, rain, heat, cold, breakdowns, and more than I can remember, but I would do it again in a minute. Just to give you an idea, here are some facts about our ride to Anaheim: We had 32 riders, representing 12 AWWA sections, 13 states, and three Canadian provinces. All told, we rode eight different brands of motorcycles, used a total of 119 vacation days, spent a collective 174 days on the road, burned more than 1,500 gallons of gas, and rode a combined total of 60,430 miles. Personally, I was away from home for three weeks to ride from Maryland to California, attend ACE15, and then ride back home again. I wouldn’t trade one second of that trip for anything in the world. What is your biggest accomplishment? Professionally, it’s reaching a point in my career where I can influence change, and others seek my input. That’s very gratifying. Personally, I’ve been married to my wife, who is still my very best friend, for more than 42 years. We have two sons, both of whom have their own families. One is an airline pilot, and the other is a police officer. Between them we have five grandsons. I am blessed! What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? A number of years ago I was faced with an ethical dilemma. I sensed something wasn’t right and refused to participate in any way. That refusal made my life fairly miserable for a time, but I was vindicated in the end. What’s right is right, and wrong is wrong. No wiggle room allowed. Toughest thing about your job? Having patience. I work for a big water utility, and nothing happens quickly here. That’s probably best in the long run to ensure that any changes are really needed

and implemented properly, but it doesn’t make it any easier for someone who likes to get things done NOW! I’ve adapted to it over time. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A newspaper reporter. What is something that people would be surprised to know about you? I really like to sing and I’m actually pretty good at it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very much aware no one is about to sign me to a recording contract, but people don’t cover their ears and run in the opposite direction when they hear me either.

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