Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Bad Reads


Somewhere on an outer wall of the building you live or work in, if you live or work in Harrisburg, or Somerset, or one of hundreds of other cities, townships, and boroughs across the mid-Atlantic, there’s a small white box with a battery inside that may or may not be dying.

Once a month, a municipal worker drives by, and the box, which is connected by wire to your water meter, beams data about your usage to her computer. The data is recorded and, sometime later, turned into a bill.

If you’re in Harrisburg, the odds have lately been pretty good that your box beams nothing at all. The boxes were installed 13 years ago, with batteries that have a lifespan of around 10 years. The city periodically orders replacement batteries, but has never done so on the scale that started making itself felt a few years ago, when the number of offline boxes began climbing dramatically.

Sue Weldon, one of the city’s two drivers making the data collection routes, said she started sensing the scope of the problem around the fall of 2011. Each month, after doing her routes, she’d get a printout from the city; each page, listing around 40 houses, would show the addresses that had failed to record a reading. When she started doing the routes, in 2007, the printout would be 10 or 11 pages long. Over the past two years, however, it has grown to almost 200 pages of errors citywide.

When the city doesn’t get a meter reading from a building, Weldon or another employee must perform a manual inspection to resolve the problem. (The problem, by the way, isn’t always the battery: it could be a damaged wire or a broken meter.) Before the spike in bad reads, Weldon said she could stay on top of the in-person visits. But as more and more units went offline, it became impossible to keep up.

The city, overwhelmed, resorted to estimating residents’ bills, relying on past usage rates. There didn’t appear to be all that much to fret over. Estimating bills is standard procedure when the city can’t get a reading, and the water bureau does it all the time. The meters themselves are mechanical, rather than electronic, and they continue to record accurate data even while the radio unit is down. The city apparently planned to do what it has always done: reconcile the estimates with actual consumption once the radios went back online.

The problem, in this case, was the length of the delay, which for some customers lasted over a year. City Councilwoman Sandra Reid, for example, received estimated bills for 18 months. When the city finally caught up in October and got an accurate reading, Reid learned she’d regularly been undercharged, and now owed $628.

She raised the topic at a meeting last week of council’s public works committee, where she vented, at length, about an experience that she found “incredibly frustrating.” “It’s just the stress level,” she said later. “I can pay my bills, but I put myself in the position of residents, because I work for them. How is a little old lady on a fixed income going to pay a bill in the hundreds of dollars?”

The issue made partial rounds through the usual channels. On Nov. 12, the Patriot published a letter to the editor by a woman from Susquehanna Township, whose mother lives in the city. “Two months ago, my mother received a bill for almost $300, about four times the amount she usually pays,” the letter says. “She was shocked.” The letter even goes on to portray Reid’s hypothetical “little old lady.” When she went to pay the bill, the author wrote, “The person ahead of me in line at the water bureau was an elderly lady who owed over $800 for water service. She had to pay $300 today to keep her water on and the clerk told her she needed to pay another $250 by the end of the month.”

To adapt a favorite line of the mayor’s, it was setting up to be another stumblebum day in the city of Harrisburg. The night of the council meeting, abc27 ran the story, under the headline “Harrisburg residents battle huge water bills.” After references to “faulty batteries” and “botched water bills,” the segment quoted a resident, Thorin Burgess, whose catch-up charge had totaled nearly $1,000. “‘Estimated’ means you rolled the dice, you crapped out,” Burgess says, presumably implying that the city, having made a bad gamble, should foot the bill. “That’s what ‘estimate’ means.”

Setting aside that there is no “battle,” since residents will pay what they owe, just like others did whose meters were working; that the batteries are not “faulty,” but expiring on schedule; and that the bills were not “botched,” except insofar as they didn’t say “estimate” in bolder type—how much of a scandal is really here?

On the engineering side, the city has actually achieved a clever workaround of a tricky problem. When the city installed its radio boxes, in 2000, it did so through a direct account with the manufacturer, a global utility infrastructure company called Sensus. (If you’re at home, take a peek: the unit on the outside of your building should say “Sensus RadioRead.”)

At the time, the planned lifespan of the installations was 25 years. But the technology has since advanced considerably. When the city looked into resolving the battery issue, the company—more accurately, its local distributor, LB Water—encouraged the city to consider a wholesale replacement. Pursuant to its latest model, Sensus would install receptors on the city’s water towers, and new boxes, with improved signal strength, would update meter readings every hour.

The upgrade, which Brad Everly, LB Water’s director of technologies, described as a “smart grid for water,” would have come with several advantages. The new system can spot leaks early, preventing waste and saving money for customers, and it allows usage to be tracked online, presumably encouraging better conservation. “Once you have these systems in, they pay for themselves,” Everly said.

The problem was that the city couldn’t afford the upgrade, which would involve replacing all of its 24,000 boxes. So instead, the city’s water bureau simply placed an order for 1,200 replacement batteries, which they bought from Sensus earlier this year, at a cost of $18.50 per unit. They installed them over the summer, and would have bought more, but in the meantime, Sensus notified them that it wouldn’t sell any more batteries. Instead, the city would have to buy replacement MXU-battery combinations, for around $90 a pop.

The city, to its credit, decided to stay on budget and allow the existing boxes to run out the useful life that had originally been projected. According to Dave Stewart, the engineering director of the Harrisburg Authority, which is assuming control of water and sewer systems under the city’s recovery plan, a system-wide upgrade “will become appropriate as we approach the expected life of the current system (between 2020 and 2025).”

In the meantime, Dan Galbraith, an employee in the water bureau, had been looking for an alternate solution. He managed to dismantle an existing battery and come up with specs for what the city would need, and Tenergy, a company in Fremont, Calif., eventually won the bid to manufacture them, at a cost of $8 per unit.

There remained a final problem. The lithium batteries were manufactured in China, and trade regulations mandated that they be sent by ship rather than cargo plane. This created further delays, and the shipment of 2,300 new batteries didn’t arrive until mid-October. But for the most part, by the time the supposed scandal made headlines, the actual technical problem had been solved. According to Stewart, the Authority is set to purchase another 2,300 batteries this year, and, pending an evaluation, will “likely undertake a significant procurement” in early 2014.

What, then, should be made of last week’s council meeting, with its familiar undertone of exasperation? The city could certainly have communicated better that it might be underestimating residents’ usage. No one likes to be surprised with an unplanned bill, although in fact, customers were apparently just as likely to receive an unplanned rebate. In the latest billing cycle, for instance, 70 percent of the 143 customers who finally got accurate readings had been overcharged and received credits to their accounts.

But last week’s meeting also represented a moment where, however fleetingly, the possibility of better government flickered through city hall. Shannon Williams, the Authority’s executive director, appeared before council, in person, with a plan of action to solve a problem she hadn’t created. That’s a major change in Harrisburg government—an executive actually showing up to take accountability—and residents would do well to take note of it. City workers, meanwhile, held Sensus equipment to the company’s own promise (“Our customers should expect a twenty-five year life from the system,” the official bid said in 2000) and found a solution that will save the city money.

Everly, for his part, acknowledged that the current system, if properly maintained, is still “very efficient” and “works very well.” He expressed sympathy for the city’s financial constraints: “It seems like when we talk to them,” he said, “they just don’t have any money.” This might be a story about why Harrisburg can’t have nice things—but it’s also about how city government, even when budgets are tight, is capable of good work.

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