The city of Savannah is installing 10,000 so-called smart water meters in neighborhoods across the city that will transmit billing data to residents in real time and promote water conservation. 

The initial upgrades were approved by City Council, using $5.26 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, and are expected to bring more accurate bills to customers who frequently complained about variable costs for water. 

“Technology has advanced over the last decades, and our infrastructure has stayed rather antiquated,” director of the program, Terri Harrison, said. “We’ve been working on a plan to upgrade those services.” 

Savannah has about 80,000 water meters, and the oldest 50,000 are first in line to be upgraded. New, “smart,” meters will be read by cell towers, which eliminates the need for employees to visit neighborhoods to gather billing information.

The City of Savannah is working to update its water meters. First, meters that require employees to manually read them will be updated to automatic meters, followed by newer drive-by meters that are expected to be replaced when they reach the end of their lifecycle. Credit: Kailey Cota/The Current

The city already replaced 1,000 meters this spring during a pilot program that began in January in the Southbridge neighborhood near the intersection of I-16 and I-95. 

Now, about 300 meters will be placed each week in more than 10 neighborhoods across the city from the North Historic District to Windsor Forest, Carver Heights and Victory Heights. City officials say 10,000 new meters are expected to be replaced by the end of the year. 

Changing out the approximately 50,000 oldest meters is expected to take  three years and cost $4 million each year. The total cost of these upgrades is expected to be $17.2 million, but the City Council has yet to approve all the funds, Harrison said.

Marti Stein has lived in Southbridge since 2000 and received her new water meter in the pilot phase. While she doesn’t remember ever having glaring issues with her water bill, she said she supports the update. 

“That seems so out of date to have to manually come into the yard and read a meter,” Stein said. “I’m all for anything they can do automatically.” 

Badger Meters and the Utility Partners of America are working with the city to install the new meters. 

To ensure the pilot meters provided accurate information, the data it gathered was manually cleaned, reviewed and uploaded into the billing software where each account was then reviewed based on the account history, according to Harrison. 

“There were no issues with any of the bills and we felt like that because that went so well, that we were ready with our procedures to move forward to phase one of the full implementation,” Harrison said.

Blue dots represent water meters in Savannah’s billing Cycle 2. Each of the meters in Cycle 2 will be changed out to new, automatic water meters as part of the city’s plan to upgrade water reading technology. Credit: Courtesy of City of Savannah

Another valuable impact of the meter updates is making the water service workers more efficient, says Harrison.

Reading water meters is just one task that 18 employees in the utility services branch of the revenue department have. The oldest meters require staff to go to each property to read the meters, while newer water meters can be read as staffers drive through the neighborhoods. 

Eliminating the meter-reading portion of their job will allow workers to become more proactive and participate in preventative maintenance activities, Harrison said. 

It should also make bills more accurate for customers and help eliminate discrepancies. 

“Anytime 1, 2, 5, 10 customers in a 5,000 group billing cycle have a series of questions, the staff is mobilized to deal with it, the payment process is delayed,” Ronald Feldner, the water resources director, said. “It’s a more efficient process if everything is accurate from the start.” 

The automatic meters will also give customers the option to download an app, called EyeOnWater, to track their water usage throughout the billing cycle. 

Deepika and Raj Paul, who have lived in the Southbridge neighborhood since 2014, haven’t noticed any changes in their water bill since the automatic meter was installed as part of the pilot program. But they plan to download the app to track their bill more closely. 

“In the past we’ve had some really high water bills, so we’re just hoping that doesn’t happen again,” Deepika Paul said. “But so far, the new water meters haven’t been a problem.” 

Most installations will take place Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the city’s AMI Smart Water Meter website

Customers don’t need to schedule an appointment or even be home while the meters are installed, which takes about 30 minutes, according to the website. The installers will leave a door-hanger that says if the installation was successful or if additional next steps need to be taken. 

The newest of Savannah water meters — the 30,000 not included in this upgrade — will be changed out by utility workers as they age out, Harrison said. All of Savannah’s water meters are expected to be updated to automatic meters by 2030. 

Kailey Cota is a data reporting intern at The Current through the Dow Jones News Fund. She recently graduated from the University of South Carolina and was named the 2021 S.C. Collegiate Journalist of...