SF water district installs smart water meters

August 5, 2011 8:47:00 PM PDT
There has been plenty of protest surrounding PG&E's new SmartMeters. Some claim the meters cause overbilling, others worry about radiation exposure. However, few realize people there is another utility quietly installing its own version of SmartMeters.

It has remained under the radar so far, but the San Francisco Water Department is now replacing old water meters with new wireless models. Earlier, 7 On Your Side reported the installations have caused dozens of water pipes to burst and homeowners may be responsible to pay for any damage. Now, many are realizing these new water meters are similar to PG&E's controversial SmartMeters and soon, every home in San Francisco will have one.

The owners of a San Francisco duplex may not know it, but they're about to get a new smart water meter installed out front.

The water department says the old meters are wearing out so it's installing the electronic meters at all 177,000 homes in the city.

"We're taking advantage of an opportunity to go beyond just replacing the meter by also upgrading the technology and providing for them to be automatically read," said Suzanne Gautier from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The new meters have wireless transmitters that will send water-use data through the airwaves four times per day to a central computer. Officials say it will help consumers track their consumption and detect leaks.

The project has gone on quietly compared to the battles over PG&E's controversial SmartMeters.

"I think it's been kind of slipped under the radar," said Stu Matthews.

Matthews has protested PG&E's SmartMeters out of concern about health impact of emissions. Now he says the water department went ahead and installed a smart water meter at his home before he could do anything about it.

"The flyer that we got basically said this is not optional," said Matthews.

Amy O'Hair isn't going to let it happen at her house. She was arrested trying to block installation of a PG&E SmartMeter also because of concerns over radiation. Now she's put a sign over the old water meter still serving her house warning not to install a wireless meter.

"It's my house, it's my front yard, and I do not want an RF emitter on my property," said O'Hair.

The water meters use the same wireless technology as PG&E's SmartMeters though they emit lower levels of radio waves. Also water usage data is beamed directly to a collector's unit like the one located in the city's Bernal Heights. On the other hand, PG&E's SmartMeter data bounces from house to house on the way to collectors.

Gautier says water meters are safe and emissions fall below levels allowed by the FCC, and the meters are under the sidewalk.

"If you stood over, it you'd get less than the radio frequency you would get from a baby monitor in your home," said Gautier.

Protesters aren't convinced.

"Why would we want to install RF emitters every 25 feet along the sidewalk in San Francisco? I walk to BART, for instance, I'm going to pass 60, 70, 80 houses," said O'Hair.

Gautier acknowledged three dozen customers so far have asked not to have the meters installed. The city's PUC is considering an opt-out program similar to a proposal at PG&E. Customers would turn off the transmitter and possibly pay extra for a meter reader.

The water agency also wants to ensure the accuracy of the meters and wireless data transmission. At PG&G, customers flooded the utility with complaints that their SmartMeters caused their bills to skyrocket.

"If there's a change in your water bill, it will relate to the amount of water being counted through your meter. So a new meter just by in virtue of it being a new meter may be more accurate," said Gautier.

The water department is still billing customers based on manual readings of all meters until the wireless transmission is tested.

New York City is currently installing the same kind of water meter system and the East Bay Municipal Utility District is considering a pilot program of its own.

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