Dick Pope checks his email every morning to look for toilet leaks at Family of Faith United Methodist Church.

Last year, a $3 rubber flapper failed at the church on East Market Street in Akron. Like money trickling down the drain, the water ran and ran but the tank never quite filled up. Pope, a trustee at the church, found the leak the hard way the next month when a $600 bill arrived — about four times what the church usually pays.

The city forgave some of the catastrophic bill through a utility relief program. But customers can get help only once every three years for toilet leaks. And the church had plenty more toilets that could start leaking.

So Pope asked the city to move the water meter from its underground location by the road into the church, where he could check it daily. Instead of that costly procedure, the water department swapped out the meter with one that transmits usage by the gallon every hour. The city started emailing a daily report.

A few weeks later, Pope spotted a small but steady uptick in water use. His custodian found a second leaky toilet. The repair cost nothing.

“We spotted that right away instead of having another month go by and getting another huge water bill,” Pope said.

He thinks about all the toilets in the city, especially in older apartment buildings and hotels. “I know all of these buildings have got to have toilets leaking. And if it’s not a bad leak, you would never know it.”

Through a pilot program, 225 Akron water customers have tried the new automated water meter during the past two years. From a toilet drip in a church to a gushing sprinkler head at Summit Mall, the new meters have acted like an early alert system.

Now, city administrators want to make the new technology standard for all 90,000 customers, including suburban residents and businesses that get city water used to determine sewer bills. The city spent $17.9 million in 2003 for the current, less-sophisticated system.

Along with detecting leaks early, the new meters would allow customers to set monthly water budgets. Alerts would go off within an hour of inexplicable spikes in usage. Customers would be billed per gallon instead of every 100 cubic feet of usage, which could even out bills that go up and down from month to month.

Public Service Department staff will brief City Council on Monday on a plan to request proposals from water meter manufacturers later this year. The new units would be installed between 2020 and 2022 in every home and business on the municipal water system. Administrators have not decided if customers would be charged fees to replace each meter, which will cost between $80 and $160 each, plus about $65 for a transmitter on each unit.

 

Evolution of meters

Akron’s current water meters are now between 14 and 16 years old. Before they were last replaced, an army of 18 meter readers had to visit every unit to record water usage and bill customers.

Meters used today require only one meter reader. For 22 days each month, he drives by all 90,000 customers in a sensor-mounted Ford Explorer, collecting data and uploading it onto a computer at the city's water department office on Triplett Boulevard.

By 2022, when the new meters are all in, Water Meter Supervisor Jerome McCall plans to reassign this last meter reader to monitor automated reports, just like Pope does every morning.

Administrators expect the new meters to prevent theft of water and leaks, especially in vacant buildings.

About 50 additional accounts are flagged each month for suspicious activity. Nine in 10 turn out to be theft, McCall said. Thieves take the caps off of meters that have been shut off, often for nonpayment, McCall explained. With no cap, the water flows unmetered, meaning the city never knows how much was stolen or that anything was stolen until a month later.

The new meters instantly sound an alarm when the cap is removed.

Customers can set their own alarms, too. Landlords would know an hour after a pipe starts leaking in an empty apartment house. Snowbirds in Florida could periodically check for usage or set the alert so low that any usage trips the alarm.

In the event that a water main bursts, Water Supply Bureau Manager Jeff Bronowski said, the new meters would detect a backflow of dirty water into affected households. The process now is to draw big circles around entire streets or neighborhoods and tell everyone inside to boil their water to be safe. An integrated system would generate a message for only customers who are actually impacted, not their neighbors too.

 

Even billing

Perhaps the most noticeable change for customers, other than a knock at the door to swap out the meter, would be the elimination of erratic billing.

Customers today can pay double or triple what they did last month, even with no leaks and level usage. That’s because the current system bills by 100 cubic feet (HCF) of usage, which equals 748 gallons.

The HCFs are always rounded down for billing purposes.

Consider this scenario, in which a customer uses less than four more cups of water from one month to the next but is charged for three times the use:

In the first month, the customer uses 1.99 HCF and is billed for 1 HCF. The other 0.99 HCF rolls over to the next month when 2.02 HCF is used, which totals 3.01 HCF. So, the customer gets dinged for 3 HCF — a $60 bill instead of the $21 charged the prior month.

The new meters bill precisely to the gallon — no more roller-coaster ride.

 

Customer service

The limited pilot program gave users daily email reports. A website dashboard is also available, showing an hour-by-hour breakdown of usage over the past day.

Ideally, administrators would feed the instantaneous water meter data into a smartphone app for customers.

Like online banking where customers set alerts for low balances or big transactions, the user could set a water consumption budget and pay bills through the app. If daily or hourly usage spikes, the user would get a push notification or email.

Customers uncomfortable with technology could call the water department to get a readout over the phone or elect to be alerted the old-fashioned way.

Administrators say empowering users with information raises awareness, leading to less water use, smaller bills and less water needing to be treated.

Residents regularly question the accuracy of meters. McCall said they’re generally accurate but lose their edge with age.

When the new meters are in, McCall said, water department staff can come out to an account holder’s home, fill up a 5-gallon bucket and let customers see the digital meter tick five times before their very own eyes.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.