If you want a job done right, half your battle rests in choosing the right equipment. At DEC, we pride ourselves on using the most up-to-date gear to ensure our members are receiving the most reliable service. This includes everything from bucket trucks to transformers. But something people may overlook when considering equipment that is integral to the Co-op’s overall ability to provide power is the final touch that makes electrification possible: the meter. Without meters, and the employees who work in DEC’s metering and power supply department, there is no connection to keep the lights on.
From the outside, meters look simple; most of us know them only as the tiny gray boxes on the side of our home or business that, periodically, someone from the Co-op comes around to check. Beyond that, we might not give them much thought. But meters serve the important role of connecting power from DEC’s lines to any residence in their service area. According to manager of metering and power supply CJ Myers, they also perform two other key functions: monitoring a member’s electrical usage, as well as providing a metric by which the Co-op can accurately bill members.
“Metering is the measuring of electricity going to houses,” Myers says. “As manager of metering, we make sure that every house and business has a meter, and we are recording the values that we bill on.”
“On a regular residential home, we bill kilowatt hours, which is just straight-up usage,” Myers says. “As you use electricity, it increases incrementally: 1+1+1+1, and so on. Whenever you start getting higher and higher usages (like those from commercial buildings), we start measuring demand. Demand is when a member gets billed not only for their total usage, but also for what their highest usage was in 15 minutes for that month. That is part of how we get billed as a utility from our transmission provider, which is the total capacity. We break that down for our largest members, to have them pay a fair share of that transmission cost.”
A third value meters measure is the power factor (kVArh) of a residence. Sometimes referred to as “dirty power,” power factor represents excess energy usage that decreases the quality of the electricity being distributed. Think of it like Internet bandwidth – when a lot of people are online at the same time, watching videos, reading articles, or even just checking email, it can slow down everyone’s connection. It’s the same process with power. For example, everyday appliances used in a home are standard – they don’t add any undo strain to the system. But think of companies that use heavy machinery on a regular basis; the extra weight their equipment puts on the power supply can bog it down for all members, so it’s the Co-op’s responsibility to “clean it up.” To do that, DEC adds capacitor banks – devices that store and balance energy – to the system. Through a chemical reaction that occurs inside the capacitor bank, electricity is scrubbed of any “dirty power” to return its quality to an acceptable level, and members who contribute to the addition of power factor on the system are billed accordingly for their usage.
“After you get past the demand charges, you get into power factor charges,” Myers says. “The people that do the most, that have the most demand, will also have a very high power factor. Their bills reflect the amount they pay to help chip in on the cost of what the Co-op pays to keep this power up.”
Still, even with the most advanced monitoring and billing standards in place, a meter is a piece of technology – sometimes, technology gets it wrong. That’s why meter technicians are invaluable to the entire operation, from the initial installation of a meter to any issues it may run into in the future. If a member has a discrepancy over their bill, meter techs are responsible for diagnosing potential problems with the meter and fixing any issue that arises. Master meter technician George White says his favorite part of the job is interacting with members and helping them understand the process.
“If you’re there to just check a meter or change a meter, you’re able to connect with the public, and explain to them what’s going on with their meter,” White says. “While we’re changing the meter, it puts them at ease.”
Meters can become defective for a variety of reasons, from a blown fuse to an internal error. Whatever the case may be, White says physically checking the meter at the residence will clear up any questions.
“Sometimes, it’s a manufacturer defect. Sometimes, it can be on the customer side, when they have something going on in their electrical panel, like wires aren’t connected properly,” White says. “The meter would sense that – that the circuit isn’t operating properly – so it would tend to heat up.”
If a meter has to be changed, the techs visit the property, letting members know that they may be out of power for up to a minute. They then open the meter pan and check the socket and connections. If they notice a major issue, such as the meter is running hot or they can see where interior parts of the meter have melted, they let the member know they may be without power a little longer to perform a more thorough inspection.
The procedure of testing and changing meters also depends on the type of meter in use. If it is an RF meter (a smart meter that uses radio frequency technology to monitor electric usage) versus a traditional meter, the process is a little different.
“If it’s an RF meter, and there’s an issue, I’ll test it here at the office to see what’s going on with it. If it tests fine, I’ll reprogram it and get it ready to go back in the field,” White says.
The use of RF technology in DEC meters is helping to transform the department. With all but about 100 meters left on the system that can’t be switched over to RF, readings can now be performed and communicated back to the Co-op digitally. According to Myers, the RF system not only makes his team’s work more efficient, but it also provides them with more information that can be used for continued growth.
“We used to read about 6000 meters a month, by hand, and now we are down to 300 or 400,” Myers says. “So we’ve drastically cut down the amount of time and effort it takes to go read all those meters, and in doing so, it also give us more access to data to monitor our system.”
This data includes voltage measurements, meter temperature checks and load management, all of which can help DEC recognize an issue in a meter before it actually happens. This falls under the heading of the new “Last Gasp” program, developed by the Co-op’s dispatch team.
“In the past, the meter would just get hot and burn up, and then we would have to send a letter out to a member saying, ‘You need to hire an electrician, and you’ve got five – ten days,’” Myers says. “Now, we can go out and troubleshoot it ahead of time, and if we can’t fix it, we can it least tell the member, ‘This is a problem. You should probably budget for this so you can get an electrician to come out and fix this.’”
While the easy, advanced communication between RF technology continues to increase the efficiency of the metering department, Myers says it isn’t foolproof. There are still the roughly 100 meters that aren’t RF that have to be accounted for, as well as meters that run into day-to-day issues, so there will never be a time that traditional meter readers – employees who manually check the meters for their readings - are not a necessity at the Co-op.
“We’ll always have to have meter readers,” Myers says. “That’s never going to end. It’s just a matter of getting the number of meters that aren’t in the RF network as low as we can.”
Bryan Tindley has been a meter reader at DEC for 33 years, and says the advent of electronic readings has definitely changed the business since he first started.
“I have seen the meter reading process change from paper and pencil, to now we do it mostly remotely,” Tindley says. “Before, we would have the paper and pencil, and it didn’t matter if it rained – you were out there trying to scribble down your readings and not get the paper wet, and you’re like, ‘How am I going to get this done?’”
Once readings were collected for the day, meter readers would return to headquarters, where they had to input the data manually onto the system. Again, advantages of technology have simplified the process – using handheld digital devices, readers can upload their readings instantly from the field.
Even though the amount of meters he has to read may be less (down from 300 per day to 50), Tindley says he still loves the freedom and flexibility that come with the job.
“Your job dictates your lifestyle, or your lifestyle will dictate what kind of job you have,” Tindley says. “Every day I go out and have a good perspective, even if it’s raining. I’m still going out. I don’t have to sit in an office.”
Similarly, as a cable locator, Megan Simmons also spends most of her workday in the field, using a locating wand to help her find electric lines that have been placed in the ground before work on a property can begin.
“If any digging is being done, and they need to know where the lines are, cable locators hook up to the meter and trace the underground lines,” Simmons says.
Tracing lines can be a difficult process, depending on the age of the line as well as environmental factors.
“If it’s an older cable, sometimes my readings are hard to place,” Simmons says. “If it’s placed in the ground, there’s tree roots that could come in conflict with it, or it could be under too much water. There’s a whole number of different things that go on in the ground."
No matter which part of the metering department you look at, it’s clear that DEC would fall woefully behind without them. Whether monitoring member usage, gathering important Co-op data for billing or locating lines to create safe work environments, metering is the physical connection between DEC and the people we power.