City sifts water meter options

Fresno homeowners may soon have water meters that will allow city officials to monitor water usage so accurately that leaks could be spotted by a computer long before the homeowners notice.

Those meters, known as fixed automated reading systems, were part of a presentation on a metering plan to the Fresno City Council on Tuesday.

The meters will start to appear later this year as city officials begin compliance with a state law and an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that requires the city to charge a metered rate by 2010.

Another 24,000 meters installed in older homes also will have to be replaced.

All new homes built since 1992 have water meters, and meters were installed in some homes before that date.

On Tuesday, the City Council got its first in-depth look at how the metering program would work, and how the meters could be monitored.

Garth Gaddy, Fresno's assistant director of public works for water, introduced a plan that called for city workers to begin installing or replacing water meters by the end of this year.

Gaddy offered a range of options from traditional meters that would be read by meter readers, to an automated system that monitors usage on a continuous basis.

Gaddy recommended the automated system, saying it would be cheaper in the long run.

The council is expected to vote on the plan in two weeks.

With more than 100,000 Fresno homes needing meters, the project will take five years to complete and cost up to $53 million just for meters and related equipment.

The city will sell bonds to finance the cost of buying and installing the meters.

When operational and billing expenses are added, total costs jump to between $131 million and $164 million over 20 years, depending on the type of meters chosen.

The automated system allows officials to constantly monitor water usage citywide without a meter reader having to visit each home.

The system is expected to cost about $51 million to install, or $131 million for installation and operation for 20 years.

Traditional meters would cost about $164 million to install and operate for 20 years.

Gaddy said the automated reading meters will cut staffing costs, and cut emissions by reducing the number of public works vehicles needed by meter readers.

The meters also will help the city cut water usage, Gaddy said. Right now, each Fresno resident uses an average of 296 gallons of water per day.

In Clovis, where meters are used, each resident uses 241 gallons of water per day.

"That's a huge savings, both in terms of water and in terms of the electricity or natural gas used to pump that water," Gaddy said.

Constantly monitoring the meters through the automated system also allows the city to quickly detect leaks and better plan for water needs, Gaddy said. "Conservation, customer service and billing are all also improved."

Council Member Mike Dages said the automated meter-reading system seemed to make the most economic sense.

"We should use the best technology available," Dages said. "Even if it costs more to install, it's easy to see it will save us much more in the long run."