GARLAND — A systematic water meter replacement program is moving forward, with a letter of intent expected to be signed for a $240,000 loan that would put in place the first such system overhaul in Garland in close to 60 years.
The new system is expected to bring more reliability and accuracy in accounting for the town’s well water through the installation of a fixed-based automated meter reading network that will also significantly cut down the resources necessary to the process.
In September, the Garland Board of Commissioners approved moving forward with a state loan application that would bring the sweeping improvements. A well rehab was initially included, but later taken out of the project.
Leo Green Jr., engineer for Green Engineering PLLC in Wilson, last year touted the benefits of such awards made by way of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. He came back to commissioners on Tuesday, saying that the $240,550 loan was ready to go upon approval by the board.
The project would replace 365 residential water meters and three bulks meters to monitor the currently non-metered Sampson County connection, as well as replace meters on the wells. The $240,550 would be lent with zero percent interest and could be financed over 20 years.
“You’ll have a completely new meter system,” Green said. “The system that is proposed is a radio-read system, where you will be able to sit here in town hall and read the majority of meters in town. The range is about 4 or 5 miles, so that will pick up everything within your service area.”
It has been ages since the town’s meters have undergone a full replacement.
“According to the records we were able to get from the town, there has been no systematic meter replacement in town since sometime in the 1950s when the system was put in here,” Green said. “That’s 50-plus years.”
Commissioner Ralph Smith agreed with the assessment, saying the only time the town replaces meters is when they “quit completely.”
Green shared a scoring checklist with town officials showing they tallied a rating of 16 in their application, far from the 28 scored by another government entity believed to be on the borderline for grant funding in this cycle. Green said the town can undergo a process that includes improving the system, implementing ordinances, protection plans and loss control programs.
“The project is eligible for $192,440 (in grants) if you had scored well enough,” said Green. “If you want to accept a 100 percent loan, you can fill (the letter of intent) out. Or you can spend the next year looking at this scoring checklist, see how much you can improve on that 16 points, roll the dice and file the application again in September to see if you score well enough for a grant.”
However, it is indeed a roll of the dice, Green warned.
“What the state is telling us now is they don’t think they’ll be getting a whole lot of grant money in future years with the economy like it is, both nationally and statewide,” said Green. “(They) don’t know that next year there will be much loan money. You might not get anything.”
Based on the 368 customers in Garland, Green said it would cost an average of less than $2.75 per customer every month to repay the loan.
“Essentially $1,000 a month is what we’re going to have to end up paying for the new water system,” said Commissioner Matthew Register. “Yeah, it’s free money, but you still have to pay free money back.”
Green said the town might want to look at its rate schedule, and charge more to residents who use more water. The town approved a sizable increase in its utility rates and fees just last July.
“If we go up on these people’s water rate, they’re going to run us out of town — again,” said Register.
Green has noted that the revenue gained by way of improved monitoring of water use and losses may work to offset the cost of the project.
A water loss analysis by Green Engineering showed the town is losing an average of 15 percent of water being pumped out of its wells. Last year, the firm tracked the amount of water pumped from the town’s wells, and what was billed, over a course of several months. Monthly losses ranged from 2 percent to 38 percent in that time.
“That 15 percent of (average) water loss, you can figure that’s 15 percent dollar loss,” said Green. “Your revenues could be drastically improved by a meter replacement program.”
Green has previously estimated that approximately $40,000 in revenue a year would be found by detecting water leaks and loss. The radio-read system would negate the need to send somebody out every time it is believed there is a water leak. The town also sells water to the county with no master meter, rendering the town incapable of knowing about — or recovering revenue from — leaks, flushing and breaks that may occur from that connection.
“Once you put your meters in, you can sit here and if a guy comes in and has a leak, you can tell him to shut everything off in his house and call him back in 30 minutes and tell him how much water he has used,” said Green. “You don’t have to send anybody out there. You can read his meter here. You can do everything but cut (water) off and turn it on.”
Garland commissioners get regular complaints from residents about unexpectedly huge water bills that are believed to occur from water losses. One resident at Tuesday’s meeting said he recently received a $400 bill for his monthly water use, when his six-month average use was around $70. A leak was detected previously, but it was believed to have been fixed. When the bill came, it showed a massive amount of water usage.
Mayor Winifred Murphy said the town could provide no definitive answer, but modified the bill to the average six-month use. A better system was needed, she said.
“There are a lot of inconsistencies,” said Murphy of the current meters. “It’s just unexplainable.”
Along with more accountability and reliability, the amount of resources utilized to do the meter-reading and billing will be decreased immensely. Green said the equipment’s mapping software will indicate which meters have been read and which have not, and include a plethora of up-to-the-minute data.
“You can tell exactly what your loss was daily, weekly, monthly, however you want to do it,” said Green.
The town’s meter readings are currently contracted with Envirolink. Those readings are brought to the town, whose staff does the billing in-house. Town clerk Jennifer Gray said it takes Envirolink’s representative about three days to read the town’s meters, while staff runs the numbers to gauge whether they are high or low and if the meter needs to be re-read.
“It’s very time-consuming,” said Gray. “It’s a good four days of hard work.”
“And there’s a lot of room for error, first in reading the meter and then in putting it in,” added Murphy.
Green said, with the vehicle radio-read unit, that time is cut down astronomically. He said a town in South Carolina with 8,000 customers has a similar system, and all the meters are read in less than 15 minutes. With the number of meters in Garland far less than that, he noted, it might not even take one minute.
“You can read those meters in 40 seconds,” said Green. “The beauty of this system is read those meters today and you send the bill out today. It picks it up, dumps it in and writes your bill.”
The town unanimously approved submitting the letter of intent to accept the loan, which has to be done by March 23. The move must be approved by the N.C. League of Municipalities.
Murphy noted that the county is in the process of developing its own wells and may not need to purchase water from Garland. If that is the case, Green said the $45,000 for the bulk master meters could be eliminated from the project. The whole project, for that matter, could be taken off the table at the board’s discretion. Until money is spent, it is not owed.
“You’re not obligated to do anything,” Green said.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.