By Karen R. Smith

Water Metering Today and Tomorrow

Badger Meter, Inc.
4545 West Brown Deer Road
Milwaukee, Wisc. 53223
Telephone: 414/355-0400
Website: www.badgermeter.com

Of the three large water meter companies in North America, only Badger Meter, Inc. has operated independently for the past 100 years. Traded on the American Stock Exchange since 1971, chairman, president and CEO Richard A. Meeusen had the rare privilege of ringing the opening bell for that august body on Monday, January 10th of this year as part of the firm’s centenary anniversary celebration.

Water, like the other utilities, has huge fixed costs. As such, it would seem to be a prime candidate for metering. But while electricity and gas are routinely and universally metered in North America, water is not. The very meter reading systems used for water were—until comparatively recently—those developed for the other utilities. Badger developed the Orion meter reading system, which was the first specifically designed for water. It was created for small utilities that needed a product they could simply install and use, without customization, without in-house development. “Orion has really found its niche,” Meeusen noted, adding that the product’s sales have doubled every year.

Today, approximately 60 percent of North American households are metered, Meeusen explained. The rest are either on municipal systems or private wells. Since all water comes from the same limited sources, he believes that it is only common sense to propose that all water—including well water—should be metered. It has been consistently proven that usage drops when people pay for their water, in some places by staggering amounts. “In Mexico City, for example, there was a 35 percent drop after water metering was adopted,” he said.

Right now, an estimated 15 percent of water meters in U.S. are automated, the other 85 percent are still being manually read. That conversion has taken much longer than anyone predicted, Meeusen explained, for a host of reasons. Longer because of lots of product offerings causing confusion in the marketplace. Longer because it’s a tremendous negative, in terms of public relations, when a utility has to lay off meter readers, a local work force.

At first, for many, the price of the meters themselves with automatic meter reading (AMR) technology was prohibitive. Those prices have come down and now there is a strong economic case for making the switch. The products have also become more robust.

Only 60 percent of U.S. residences have water meters and those aren’t necessarily where you might guess they would be. “Consider that the majority of homes in Chicago don’t have a water meter and that New York City is just starting to install water meters. Both of those cities are finally metering for the same reason: nothing has a bigger impact on water conservation.”

Some politicians have made free water a rallying cry; but many, like Chicago’s Richard Daly, have changed their opinion as water shortages, droughts and shrinking aquifers have shown the desperate need for conservation. “Daly said water would always be free; now even he says we must meter. It’s the only sensible way to deal with a shrinking resource,” Meeusen summed up. Ultimately, even free water is paid for somewhere: in property taxes, conservation initiatives, etc.

It is worth noting that there are 55,000 water utilities in the U.S., which means there are 55,000 ways to sell water meters in America. Of the water utilities that are investor owned, 100 percent are metered. Are they charging the true value of a gallon of water? Probably not. “Germany charges for the actual value of the water piped to people’s homes, approximately $6.87 per gallon; here in America, $1.86 per gallon is about average,” he noted.

Meeusen believes we need to charge the value of the water, not just the cost to deliver and clean it. “That would create a huge power shift: cities like Milwaukee would have a huge advantage over the Southwest.”

As both individual states and regions and entire nations ponder how to supply their area from the 340 million cubic miles of water on the earth, many are discussing desalination as an answer for the future. Yet Meeusen noted it makes far more sense economically to just get people to use less. “Double pipe and metering are a lot cheaper than building a desal plant.” The recent experience (still ongoing) in Tampa, Fla., would appear to bear him out.

Despite the obstacles, Meeusen is frankly surprised that the conversion rate to AMR (a leading area for Badger) isn’t higher. There are not only economic benefits, but soft benefits too, as AMR can enable utilities to do a better job serving their customers. “AMR provides automatic leak detection, which further aids conservation,” Meeusen explained, “but creative utilities can go further as they have in Colorado. There, the utility company said to us, ‘since you have readings transmitted every four seconds, why not let homeowners monitor their own water use?’”

Why not indeed. Badger created the ultimate refrigerator magnet. It’s a small box that shows the actual water use happening in the home (by communicating with the AMR) allowing homeowners to watch the consumption. Meeusen notes that it is too early to tell (no long-term data yet) but it should result in an overall drop in usage.

Meeusen feels that education is necessary for the next logical step, which is metering well water users. “It’s not like mineral rights! The water under my home—and yes, my house is on well water—belongs to everybody.” He notes that such a stance is a tough one to sell and might amount to political suicide for an elected official who tries. Yet how we use water in the coming years will require making a lot of tough decisions if there is to be enough for eveyone. “Toilet water is potable. Why? We wash cars with drinking water. Why?” Even if there is no additional technological advance in waste water processing and treatment, the effluent we are able to produce today is suitable for those applications and many more. Some communities are double piping now. California and Arizona notably “purple pipe” effluent for a host of usages (see Corona, California’s story in WC&P’s September issue). “While I am, in fact, amazed at the idea of converting waste water into fresh water, I’ve heard people say that the term waste water will become extinct as we recognize that it is too valuable to label as such,” he surmised.

Small groups of hydrologists say maybe California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico were just enjoying a 100-year wet period and are now reverting to normal. Others simply say it’s the worst drought in 100 years…or in 500. Today, you can stand at the spot where the Colorado River used to run into Baja and now it does not.

The Midwest is not without water problems. Peoria, Ill. has the most expensive water in the U.S. The city had to redrill all wells and now has to repay bonds. A radon problem in Waukesha (outside Milwaukee, Wisc.) has caused that municipality to dig all wells deeper to avoid radon. Who is to pay for that?

In short, Meeusen says, water’s going to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. Metering will play an enormous part in solving these problems.

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