The Altoona Water Authority on Thursday voted to spend $6.5 million on automating the reading of meters and replacing its conventional meters with "smart" ones.
The six-year project should pay for itself over 20 years, because the new meters will register flow with almost 100 percent accuracy, unlike the current meters.
The authority will apply for a grant or loan from PennVEST, and if that doesn't work, borrow through bonds or a bank.
It's too early to say how the borrowing might affect water rates, according to officials.
The authority chose the Sensus FlexNet automatic reading system and the Sensus iPERL meter for the project. A Sensus distributor touted those to the board in November.
Authority officials checked out other systems and products but didn't find anything as good, according to General Manager Mark Perry.
The authority will first spend $2.8 million over 18 months to set up the automated reading system. Workers will snap radio transmitters on top of existing touchpads that meter readers now access outside homes, and they'll install repeater antennae and a tower to relay signals to the authority offices.
After that, the authority will spend $3.5 million to replace the conventional meters over five years.
The new meters will be identical to the 600 or so that workers have installed in new buildings and for individual meter replacements over the last several years.
The authority has 23,000 water customers.
The automated meter reading system will save on wages and vehicle costs but won't mean layoffs for the authority's four meter readers, according to Perry.
They will shift to other jobs, including installation and servicing of the new meters and inspections - an area where the authority can use an upgrade, Perry said.
The automated reading system also will enable the authority to warn customers of leaks and detect theft.
If the stopper on a toilet tank sticks open when a family goes on vacation, for example, the authority can attempt to alert them, saving hundreds of dollars in costs.
If a customer tries to bilk the authority by bypassing the meter, the authority can detect the fraud, because equipment in its offices will register an empty pipe on an open account.
Authority officials are optimistic about money from PennVEST, which has separate funds for water and sewer projects, because the agency is looking for water projects, said consulting engineer Jim Balliet of Gwin Dobson and Foreman.
He said there is plenty of money for water because most authorities have been focusing recently on sewer projects to comply with stricter environmental limits designed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Balliet said.
The authority was being conservative in estimating the new meters would pay for the project in 20 years, basing the payback time on an estimate that the new meters will register 1 percent more water than conventional meters, according to Ron Becher, billing director.
The new meters don't have moving parts that produce friction, like the conventional meters, which don't register all the water coming through when flow is low - a problem that meter age exacerbates, according to Perry.
The iPERL sales contingent predicted the new meters would register 10 percent more.
The reality might be somewhere in between.
Some authorities have paid for their projects in 10 years, Balliet said.
For this year, the authority kept water rates the same but raised sewer rates 11 percent - the first hike in a four-year plan to raise sewer rates a total of 58 percent to accommodate changes to benefit the Chesapeake Bay.
For 2011, the authority raised water rates 4 percent and sewer rates 10 percent.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.