March 29, 2014 10:33:17 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Earlier this month, Columbus Light and Water entered into a $3.52 million contract with Utility Metering Solutions for that company to install 11,126 water meters throughout the city.
The meters to be installed are Mueller Systems Bronze 400 Series. Two other electric departments -- one in Mississippi, one in Oklahoma -- have reported problems with the meters.
In November 2012, Cleveland, Miss., had UMS install about 6,000 Mueller Systems water meters. Cleveland city engineer Greg Korb said about 2,400 of the meters have malfunctioned.
"We didn't have any problems with UMS. They did a very good job," Korb said. "The problem we had was once the water meters were in."
Korb said the city contacted Mueller Systems, which concluded after investigating that a mechanism that stamped dials on the registers pressed them too hard during the manufacturing process and caused them to stick.
About a month ago, Korb said he received a call from Mike Booth, a member of the Stick Ross Mountain Water Company board in Tahlequah, Okla. The utility provider Booth serves had experienced similar problems with Mueller water meters. They have had to either repair or replace about 120 out of 1,400 Mueller water meters that have been in operation for more than a year.
"They flat will not take a reading," Booth said. "We know people are physically in the house using the water. We can go up and turn their faucet on at their house and it will not register through that meter."
He added that some of the meters have a tendency to burst in cold weather.
A Mueller Systems spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
A unanimous vote
The CL&W board voted 4-0 on March 20 in favor of the contract with UMS and Mueller Systems.
In January, UMS and two other companies responded to proposal requests and made presentations about their services. Engineer John Cunningham of Neel-Schaffer then rated the companies' presentations and the meters they proposed to install into two categories before adding up the scores of both categories into combined overall scores. The overall score determined who Cunningham recommended CL&W contract with to install a new mobile meter system, also known as a "drive-by" or "hot-shot" system. The updated system allows employees to drive to meters to collect information using a handheld receiver to wirelessly collect readings from them.
Last year, the utility provider contracted with Sensus, a North Carolina-based company specializing in utility management, to install a fixed-base system that reports meter data directly to towers. Gale said last April that the performance of a few hundred that had been installed was not satisfactory and recommended asking for proposals from mobile meter vendors. CL&W and Sensus are still in legal discord over the contract, Gale said.
UMS had the highest score by five points over its competitors for its presentation, but the Mueller Systems meters they proposed to install received a lower score than the other two companies' meters' scores by one point. Overall, however, UMS had the highest score. Gale and Cunningham recommend CL&W go with UMS.
Board chair David Shelton and board member Jimmy Graham each questioned the request for proposal's setup in February, saying they thought having the best meter available was as important as having the most qualified installer.
While the vote was unanimous, Shelton was not part of it because he does not vote unless a 2-2 tie has to be broken. Gale said he hopes to have the new meters, more than 10,000 of which are for residences, installed by the end of this year.
Colom: 'Fruitless' to rank meters
CL&W board member Andrew Colom was on a committee with Shelton and fellow board member Charles Newell who participated in extensive interviews with each of the three prospective installers. Colom said his impression was that all the meters were about the same in quality and he felt confident each of them would work. "They functioned fairly similar with individual quirks that were hard to say one was better than the other. (UMS) was by far the best installer because of the process they had in place during the installation," Colom said. "I just didn't feel the differences between the meters justified starting over again. I thought it made more sense to go with (Gale's and Cunningham's) opinion."
Gale and Colom also said they asked about what happened with the Mueller meters that were installed in Cleveland and were told by UMS about the faulty batch. Each of the meters the proposed installers presented have had issues, Gale said.
"You're fooling yourself if you think we're going to put this thing in and not have any problems at all," Gale said. "The best meter out there is going to be a judgment call. Besides just the basic warranty on these meters, we got a 10-year coverage. We made sure we got a letter from the manufacturer saying if there's a mass failure (3 percent of the meters installed have malfunctions) that we've got a 10-year warranty and the company would go in and replace not only the meter but pay for the labor to replace it."
Gale added that other Mississippi municipalities including Crystal Springs, Fulton and Belzoni either have recently installed or are installing the same systems CL&W approved and have yet to report any problems. Gale said CL&W crews will shadow UMS crews while they install the new system so they'll know how to replace any parts that break in the future.
Colom said that like Graham and Shelton, he thought the request for proposals could have been better organized, but he believed there should have been only one overall ranking for each installer instead of totaling the rankings of the installers and the meters of their choosing.
"It was probably fruitless to rank them that way because it created this false dichotomy where you want one meter but you want a different installer," Colom said. "The way the RFP was proposed and the way the vendors approached it, they already had a relationship with the meter company. We sort of got bogged down because of this distinction that was made, when in reality, the engineer should have just (ranked the companies) and not have gone into this separate thing ... since you couldn't separate the meter and the vendor anyway."
When asked if CL&W would be responsible for repair costs in the event the manufacturer is no longer in business before the warranty expires, Gale noted the company's long history.
"Mueller has been around for 80-100 years," he said. "Is the company going to be around for the next 10? Who knows in today's climate, but I sure would think so."
Booth said he couldn't quantify how much potential revenue had been lost as a result of the faulty meters in Oklahoma, but any difficulties experienced cancel out the benefits and improvements of a more modern and digitized meter system. While Korb said he has not had problems between the meters themselves and the devices used to read them digitally, Booth said his readers have experienced those problems.
"You can always get out and hand-read something," Booth said, "but that defeats the purpose of what you bought the thing for."
Korb said the city of Cleveland hopes to go live with reading the new meters digitally next month, but the stuck registers have forced the city to give customers with faulty meters a minimum use bill to make sure they're not overcharged. That has resulted in lost revenue "in the tens of thousands" of dollars, he said.
While having a warranty in place is helpful for the utility provider if there are meter failures, Korb said, that alone does not ensure maximum profit and doesn't do enough to convince him that the meter problems are over.
"They have a guarantee on the meters that they're going to read right," he said. "But if you don't have somebody who stands on top of it every day to watch the readings, you could be losing money left and right."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.