LaFollette Utilities continues switching to digital meters

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By Charlotte Underwood

In this new age of technology, television isn’t the only thing going digital.  

The LaFollette Utilities is in the process of switching electric meters over to digital as well.  

LaFollette Utilities, along with many other utilities throughout the world are switching over to Automated Meter Infrastructure systems (AMI), according to LaFollette Utilities Manager Kenny Baird.

The AMI system being implemented by LaFollette Utilities is a Two Way Automated Communication System (TWACS).  TWACS allows utility companies to read meters digitally through a computer system, effectively cutting the need for physical meter reading.

The new AMI system is being implemented for several reasons, including cost cutting and increasing the level of information gathered. The outage assessment and restoration feature makes finding, fixing and verifying power a much more efficient project, according to Baird.

“We can not only get a reading from these new meters, but we can gather valuable information as well,” Baird said.  He explained that through the AMI system, LUB can check if a house has power or not, or if the breaker has merely been thrown.  

“It’s going to help us avoid unnecessary call outs,” said Baird.  Another added advantage, according to Baird, is the system’s ability to monitor customer power usage on an hourly basis.

“We can pinpoint the maximum usage and help customers determine the cause of the high power output and possibly alter it to cut their costs,” said Director of Engineering Gary Williams.  

The mechanical meters were only read once a month. The new digital meters take a reading every night.  

“It allows us to do a tracking history on a customer’s power use and pinpoint problems quicker.  It not only reads the meters, but helps a lot with outage control,” said Williams.

While the electromechanical meters were not necessarily inaccurate in their readings, they had moving parts that could slow and sometimes stop over time.  The new digital meters have no moving parts, eliminating the need to sometimes replace a slow or stopped meter.

LaFollette Utilities has roughly 23,330 meters to switch over and currently have 8,546 already operating on TWACS.  

It’s a slow process because the meters are in high demand and the costs are high as well, according to Williams.  Each digital meter costs around $145 as opposed to the $35 cost of the electromechanical meters. The utilities have been in the process of this switchover for the past three to four years and it will take at least another three years before the process is complete, according to Baird.

Though the cost of the meters are high, the funds should be recouped in savings on man-hours previously needed to read the meters, as well as the man-hours wasted on unneeded power outage call outs.

“We’ve taken the human element out; before if they had a big dog in the yard or our meter technicians couldn’t get up the driveway, then the bill would be estimated, this way we can read the meters rain or shine,” Williams pointed out.

Just as with any other change, there is a certain level of uncertainty felt on the part of the customer.  Baird reported that while people may believe the new meter is causing their bills to be higher it isn’t the case.  

The rise in electric costs has been a combination of colder weather, the wholesale rate increase from the Tennessee Valley Authority and higher electric usage on the part of the consumer, according to Baird,

The extreme cold weather has been a large contributing factor in the high costs of bills, according to Baird.  The average temperature for the month of January was 34-degrees, with lows dipping into the single digits.

“Cold weather is the main thing raising bills and the TVA rate increase didn’t help either,” said Baird.

For every dollar that LaFollette Utilities collects, $.75 goes back to TVA for the purchase of power, with the other $.25 going towards operation and maintenance expenses, as well as expansions and upgrades, according to Baird.

He explained many people have what is called phantom loads, which drain energy.  A common example is the clock on a VCR, computers being left on and cell phone chargers left plugged up even though the phone is done charging.  Addressing these energy uses could also help cut electric costs.

The utilities is also in the process of switching the water meter reading system over to a similar radio system where meter technicians simply have to drive down a street and an antenna registers readings from the houses along the street, according to Baird.  This system provides similar benefits that the digital electric system provides.  The system can detect and trace leaks as they happen, according to Williams.  While the utilities have already begun implementing this system, it will take another five to six years to finish, according to Baird.