Smart Water Meters Spot Leaks in Madison

By: Phil Levin Email
By: Phil Levin Email

UPDATED: Monday, April 1, 2013 --- 8:30 p.m.
Reporter: Phil Levin

More than a hundred homeowners in Madison are fixing leaks spotted by new water meters.

The city began installing smart meters this summer. The devices wirelessly report water usage recorded hourly. The data, replacing twice yearly meter readings, allow staff to spot homes consuming water constantly, a nearly sure sign of a leak.

In 2011, the city detected 76 million gallons of leaked water.

"75 maybe even 80 percent of our leaks are toilets," said Robin Piper, who is overseeing the project for the Madison Water Utility. "It's toilets that people don't realize our running - in the basement and they don't go down to the basement that often, or upstairs on the second floor."

About 40,000 meters of the planned 66,000 are already installed. A few weeks ago Piper's team sent 141 letters to homes they saw using water for three days straight, even overnight. Nearly 90 percent of those homes have now fixed their leaks.

"My son has hearing problems and he wears a hearing aid but because of his hearing he never noticed," said Marvin Felton, who discovered a leaky toilet only after getting a note from the city.

The rest of the smart meters are slated for install by the middle of the summer. Once each zone nears completion, homeowners will be moved to monthly billing. Residents will eventually be able to check their own usage online.


POSTED: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 --- 11:00 p.m.
Reporter: Phil Levin

Beginning this summer every Madison home will get a new wireless water meter.

The devices will transmit hourly water usage data back to city staff, who say the system will help spot leaks. For example, if a home draws water for 24 straight hours there could be a leak in a pipe. If the city is sending out more water than meters indicate is being consumed, there could be a leak in distribution channels.

The $13 million project involves visiting all 66,000 homes and business in the city. Staff will install battery-powered transmitters in basements to send information to repeaters and receivers mounted on city infrastructure like light poles.

That process could take about a year, but they plan to begin in three weeks.

Residents should expect a letter in the mail about two weeks before staff hope to schedule an appointment. The free upgrade takes about half an hour.

Robin Piper from the Water Utility is leading the project. He says last year leaks wasted about 30 million gallons, which cost the city about $200,000 in reimbursements to residents. Although that savings pales in comparison to the project's cost, he says the current meter readers were discontinued and replacement parts are unavailable.

At a common council meeting Tuesday, some residents opposed adding the radio transmitters inside their homes.

"I'm a heart patient, I have many friends with serious transplant issues, pacemakers, defibrillators," said Dolores Kester, "I personally don't want any of this smart meter material in or near me or my home."

The water utility conducted a literature study showing the meters run at about 1% the wattage of WiFi wireless networks, and use a much smaller fraction of cell phone wattage.

Residents concerned about radio waves can instead choose a system installed on the exterior of their home, or continue to use their current meter. Prices for opting-out are still unannounced. Opting for an exterior installation would cost a one-time fee. The city plans to charge a recurring monthly fee for sticking with current meters since staff have to physically check the readers at least four times a year.

A pilot upgrade installation will begin at 757 meters on the city's northeast side in July and installation should finish by the end of August. As areas get the smart meters, the city will switch their customers from twice annual to monthly billing cycles.

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