March 26, 2005 in Business

Avista to begin upgrade of gas, electric meters

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Avista Utilities will embark Monday on a four-year project to upgrade its customers’ gas and electric meters with digital technology, beginning with 107,000 meters in Idaho.

The project will start with residential customers in Coeur d’Alene then move on to Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, Post Falls, Rathdrum, Dalton Gardens and Lewiston. Washington customers’ meters will be changed after the Idaho project is complete in November, Avista officials said.

When the conversion is finished, meter readers won’t need to walk onto customers’ property to read meters. That information will be gathered remotely, using low-frequency radio waves, from equipment in the employees’ vehicles. However, occasional visits will be necessary for maintenance, the company said in a news release.

“Not only does it increase customers’ privacy, it helps us decrease our costs,” said Jessie Wuerst, an Avista spokeswoman.

The new equipment will “reduce vehicle miles by reading meters remotely, and this, in turn, will help reduce our gasoline costs and lessen air pollution,” said Don Kopczynski, an Avista Utilities vice president, in a prepared statement.

Switching to the new meters also will decrease the need for meter readers. The company employs 20 meter readers in Idaho and 43 in Washington. Many of those employees are going through company-sponsored skills assessments to determine what other positions they may be eligible for at Avista, Wuerst said. However, she said, it’s probable that some people won’t find positions at Avista or will choose to leave the company.

“The company is working very hard to be sure that people are given opportunities within the company. We’re working with them to facilitate job-seeking,” Wuerst said. Company officials are not sure how many meter readers will be needed once the switch is complete, she said.

Installing the new equipment will cost $16 million in Idaho, an expenditure that the company eventually will ask regulators to include in customer rates. However, customers will see no change in their rates at this time. The cost of the project in Washington has not been determined yet, Wuerst said.

The meter-reading equipment will be supplied by Spokane Valley-based Itron, an industry leader. In a separate project, Itron is testing some meter-reading equipment on Avista customers in Spokane Valley, Wuerst said.

Installing the new system involves attaching a small device to a natural gas meter to record consumption and encode the information, the release said. There will be no interruption of natural gas service. However, electric service will be disrupted briefly to install new digital meters. Both meters will then be equipped to transmit information to remote data collectors.

In the future, the automated devices may allow customers to monitor their own electricity and natural gas use to determine when energy is at peak demand or is most expensive. A pilot automation project recently approved for Idaho Power Co. in the Boise area allows customers to monitor real-time electric prices, potentially helping them to manage their use and reduce their bills, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission said in a news release.

The technology Avista is installing has that capability, but needs to be paired with additional software, Wuerst said. That may happen once the conversion to the new meters is complete, she said.

Avista is contracting with Tru-Check Meter Services for the installation. Drivers and technicians visiting customer properties will have photo identification, as well as company uniforms and trucks, the release said.


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