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Gainesville water meters to be read by wireless signal
Alonza Grayble, front, and Leon Iler check the reading of a meter on Lee Land Road from inside their vehicle Monday in Gainesville. The Gainesville Public Utilities Department wants to move to a new meter reading system that would read water meters by antenna. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department plans to move forward on a new meter reading system that won’t require meter readers to log miles in city vehicles to find out how much water customers used each month.

Instead, the department will install antennas on water tanks around the city that will pick up signals from water meters.

Given the City Council’s blessing, the department will install the new system, called a “fixed base” meter reading system, in phases.

Kevin Purcell, a city construction engineer who has become a sort of city “meter guru,” said the department plans to put 3,000 of the approximately 49,000 customers on the fixed base system by June.

He said the $1 million it would cost to equip the meters of those 3,000 customers, install the three antennas that would pick up signals from those meters and purchase the server to download the data is in the department’s budget already.

Last year, the department proposed a similar system for the downtown meters using federal stimulus funds, but that money never made it to Gainesville, Purcell said.

The newly proposed meter reading system could provide real-time data on water use that could help both customers and the department save money and water, Purcell said.

With the ability to check water use hourly, Purcell said the Public Utilities Department will be able to notify customers sooner when their water use spikes above average — a possible symptom of plumbing problems like leaky faucets and toilets — instead of waiting until the meter reader comes possibly 30 days after the problem begins.

The system will also make billing cycles more consistent and allow the department to more accurately compare the water it pumps to the system with the water it sells, making systemwide leaks easier to pinpoint.

“The more data you can get about what water’s being used every day, the better steward you’re going to be and better manage your asset,” Purcell said.

As the department converts to the fixed-base system over the next four years, the 14 employees who are dedicated to reading meters will have more time to work on other tasks like turning on and off water service, performing preventative maintenance and making minor repairs, Purcell said.

“All these things we have to do on a normal week with reading the meters,” Purcell said. “And we’re always behind on that.”