Tacoma Public Utilities launched a project in 2017 to upgrade its power and water meters. It will take about four years to fully complete the project – which includes planning, engineering, technology upgrades and construction, and deployment of the meters. 

Why is TPU upgrading the meters?

The upgraded meters will help us deliver power and water services more efficiently and put our customers in greater control of their energy and water use. Many of the power and water meters in our system today use technology that hasn’t changed much over the last 75 years. The meters have reached the end of their lifespan and need to be updated. New meter technology offers benefits not available through the current meters. Most other utilities in our region have already upgraded their meters – and some are even working on the second or third round – so TPU is catching up to the industry.  

What are the benefits of upgraded meters?

The new meter technology will benefit customers, the utility and the environment.

Customers will have timely access to their usage data, which will enable them to make more informed decisions about their power and water use.

Tacoma Power and Tacoma Water will have more timely and better information about problems on the system – like power outages and water leaks – which will improve response times and reliability.

The new meters will not need to be read manually as done in the past, which means we won’t need regular physical access to your meter. This will be especially beneficial for customers with locked gates, dogs and other access issues.

By not driving to each meter location, we anticipate reducing costs and CO2 emissions from significantly reduced truck rolls for meter reading and field services. 

What about the meter readers?

Like you, we’re concerned about the employees who read your meters. We’re already working to identify existing opportunities and build new skills so these employees can fill needed positions at the utility as they come up.

Our goal is to minimize or avoid job loss for our permanent meter reader staff. We may need to hire temporary meter readers to fill vacancies. Those jobs would end when the upgrade is complete. 

When will the meters be upgraded?

At present, meter upgrades are expected to begin mid-2020, although that timeline could shift as project details are determined. 

What if I don’t want an upgraded meter?
 
We recognize some customers may not want an upgraded meter on their home or business. We are considering a policy that will allow customers to opt out of the new technology. Customer deferral options are expected be announced via the TPU website within the next 12 months but are dependent on the overall project timeline that is still in the early planning phases.
 

Should I be concerned about radio frequency?

We can configure the meters so the radio frequency signal is on for just a fraction of a second each day – no more than a couple of minutes total in a year.

A study conducted by Washington State University determined the amount of energy absorbed from advanced meter radio frequency is substantially less than the FCC safety guidelines, even when the body and meter are in close proximity.

According to a study conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, “wireless smart meters, when installed and properly maintained, result in much smaller levels of radio frequency (RF) exposure than many existing common household electronic devices, particularly cell phones and microwave ovens.”

The Electrical Power Research Institute, American Cancer Society and Washington State University have stated there is little health risk associated with radio frequency impacts from smart meters. 

How will you protect my privacy?

We take your privacy very seriously. No customer-identifying data – such as names and addresses – is stored in the meters or transmitted across the network.

Just like the current meters, the upgraded meters will simply collect how much electricity is being used. The meters encrypt energy and water use information to ensure privacy, and transmit it to the utility over a wireless network with multiple layers of security.

Tacoma Public Utilities employs a team of professionals dedicated to cyber security to help ensure protection of sensitive data, including customer information. 

How will you use the data you collect from my meter?

Tacoma Public Utilities must collect data from the meters to provide service. Like today, we will use the data for billing purposes and to analyze and plan. We WILL NOT sell any customer data.

Collecting the data more frequently will allow for more budget-friendly monthly billing and opportunities for you to better understand your energy and water usage. We may also use the information collected to help our customers identify opportunities for energy and water conservation and improve services to customers such as outage notification and response.

Will the upgraded meters affect how customers use electricity and water?

Timely use data can help customers make informed decisions, and potentially lead to changes in behavior to more effectively use their water and electricity, lower their bills and simplify their payments. Other utilities have seen an increase in customer satisfaction as a result. 

How much will the upgraded meters cost and how will it impact rates?

The initial estimated multi-year cost for the project is about $70 million which includes contingency funds and the cost of new meters, software, communications equipment, and labor. With the project costs spread over several years, there will be a negligible direct impact on rates.

A cost-benefit study identified numerous benefits, including significant financial savings, such as sending fewer trucks for connections, disconnections, and meter reads, reduced write-offs, labor savings, as well as shorter outage durations, better asset management tools, and less lost water and electricity. The new meters are also expected to provide more accurate billing, monthly billing, faster reconnection times, better customer tools, improved forecasting and capital planning, and faster emergency response. 

Why are you installing wireless meters instead of using the Click! Network with wired meters?

The utility industry and meter manufacturers have standardized on the use of wireless technology for advanced meters. If TPU were to build the system from scratch today, it would rely solely on wireless technology. Given that a fiber network is in place, TPU will use that network for a small part of the meter upgrade project. Wireless meter technology costs have significantly decreased in the last decade or so – which is partly why TPU is upgrading its meters. Wireless technology is the industry standard for advanced metering and is the only viable option in the market today. Wireless technology is secure, and the data is encrypted.

All of the upgraded meters will transmit secure, encrypted information from individual homes and businesses via a wireless connection to an established point that collects data from many meters. Where the fiber network is in place, the collected data will be transmitted to TPU over that fiber network. In locations without a fiber network, the collected data will be transmitted to TPU over a wireless connection. 

Will the new meters allow me to do things like control the systems in my home?

Eventually, TPU will work toward more advanced features for customers who want them. For the first few years, however, the power and water utilities will work on providing some of the basic benefits of upgraded meter technology, like being able to get timely information about electric and water use, selecting specific bill dates and getting updated outage information. 

Will the meters change the way you charge for service?

The only planned change is to move from billing every two months to billing monthly. Some utilities with upgraded meters structure their rates based on the time of day or the amount of electricity and water their customers use. Tacoma Public Utilities does not plan to change its rate structure at this time. 

Do I have to pay for the meter to be installed at my home or business?

There is no installation fee for the meter upgrades. As with any capital improvements to our system, the overall project costs and savings are factored into our long-term budget and rate-making process.

For more information, contact TPU at MyTPU@cityoftacoma.org.