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Published: Wednesday, 12/29/2010

Columbia Gas launches use of automated meters

An automatic meter reading system installed by Columbia Gas of Ohio will mean the end of estimated bills for the utility's 180,000 gas customers in northwest Ohio.

Starting with the January billing cycle, customers will be invoiced for their actual gas usage every month instead of receiving an estimated bill every other month, as they have in the past. Carmella King, a spokesman for the utility, said Wednesday the decision was based on feedback from customers, many of whom said they were unhappy with estimated statements.

"That calculation was based on pretty good information, but they still would prefer that actual reading to pay the actual bill," she said.

Columbia Gas has spent $9 million in the last 1 1/2 years to install the system throughout the local area. The Columbus-based utility plans to roll out the technology to all 1.4 million of its customers statewide by 2013, at a cost of $81 million.

Columbia spokesman Chris Kozak said the system was paid for by its most recent rate case, approved by state regulators in 2008.

The new system will make Columbia Gas meter readers more efficient, meaning fewer workers will be needed for the job. The number of meter readers employed by Columbia Gas in northwest Ohio will decrease from five to three. The work is done by contractors from Bermex Inc. of Clinton Township, Michigan.

Other electric and natural gas utilities in Ohio, such as Dominion East Ohio Co. of Cleveland and Duke Energy Retail Services in Cincinnati, have implemented similar automated technology, said Matthew Schilling, spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. "We're seeing a lot more of this throughout the state," he said.

A new Columbia Gas meter, left, sits next to the model that it replaces. Customers now will be invoiced every month for actual usage, instead of receiving an estimated bill every other month. A new Columbia Gas meter, left, sits next to the model that it replaces. Customers now will be invoiced every month for actual usage, instead of receiving an estimated bill every other month.
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Toledo Edison, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron, is not planning to implement automatic reader technology for its electricity customers, spokesman Ellen Raines said. "We're obviously following technology developments, but have not made any decisions," she said.

Columbia Gas' new system uses radio technology to read each meter from company vans, which are equipped with computers that contain specialized software.

As the vehicles drive around the neighborhoods, the software uses GPS technology to pinpoint the driver's location on a map. Gas meters are represented by red-and-white dots on that map, which disappear with a "beep" as the driver -- represented by a blue van icon -- drives past them.

Company officials liken the system interface to the 1980s arcade game Pac-Man.

Columbia Gas says meter readers will travel along predetermined routes to gather readings, so they won't need to look at computer screens while driving. The system allows drivers to accurately collect data while driving up to 55 miles per hour, so the company's vans are expected to travel at the speed of normal traffic for each area.

The meter reading systems are provided by Itron Inc., a public company in Liberty Lake, Wash., that develops metering and data collection technology for 8,000 utilities worldwide.

Curtis Anstead, the project manager who spearheaded the technology rollout, said Columbia Gas selected Itron last year because the company is considered a leader in automated meter reading systems.

"Theirs is a very well-proven device," he said. "It's been in the field for a lot of years."

Contact Sheena Harrison at: sharrison@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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