They survived longer than milkmen and most door-to-door salespeople, but modern technology is erasing another traditional figure of the urban landscape: water meter readers.
The days when a city employee went door-to-door checking water use are coming to a close in the Twin Cities area, as most cities have installed meters that send readings via radio signal. In many cities, a van cruises by once a month to pick up the signals. Some, like Minneapolis, are now entering the realm of continuous, almost live readings transmitted remotely over a special network.
Contrast that with Jenny Rhoades, who climbs through bushes and over piles of snow to affix her gunlike device to the side of houses for the city of Bloomington.
“I love this route. It’s a beautiful walk,” Rhoades said one recent morning as she hopped through the manicured yards of a townhouse community.
The rare door-to-door meter readers these days mostly grapple with dogs, fences and the occasional suspicious homeowner. But before outdoor “touchpads,” employees were venturing into basements and interacting with whoever was home.
“You [would] get cookies and treats at Christmastime, stuff like that,” said Martin Waldera, the lead meter reader in North St. Paul, which is nearly complete in converting all of its meters to radio readings.
Cities across the metro have updated technology on different timelines over the years, but an informal survey by the City Engineers Association of Minnesota of 53 Minnesota cities found that just six still had some type of manual reading inside the home — and most of those were in the process of converting them.
Not everyone is happy about the changes. The installation of the latest radio signal meters in basements has prompted letters to the editor and angry speeches at council meetings about privacy worries and the health effects of electromagnetic frequencies.
‘Knows when you flush’
About 200 people opted out of St. Paul’s upgrade to radio meters several years ago, and they pay about $50 extra a year for manual reads. Eight people opted out in St. Louis Park, where Carol Coffey, who has health concerns about the electromagnetic fields, has been sparring with the city over an affordable alternative.
“I’m hypersensitive to these fields, so I’m going to have more problems than other people,” Coffey said.
Officials have responded. Edina and St. Louis Park are among the governments who have posted statements online saying the meters are safe. The American Cancer Society weighed in, noting that high-tech meters emit low-energy radiation, but exposure is far less than what comes out of a cellphone.
“It is very unlikely that living in a house with a smart meter increases risk of cancer,” the organization said in an online post.
Other people are suspicious of such in-depth tracking of their water use.
“The city knows when you flush your toilet … They know when you’re home using water,” said Steve Cook, who lives in Florida but owns rental properties in Minnesota. He built the websites ardenhills.org and shoreview.org that warn people against “smart meters.”
But Dean Anderson, the supervisor of Minneapolis’ meter services, said, “I don’t really care how many times you flush the toilet. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Minneapolis is embarking on a $20 million, eight-year project to convert to a system that reads meters automatically — eliminating the need for the monthly drive-by.
Among the benefits will be the ability to detect leaks as they happen, rather than when homeowners get an eye-popping bill at the end of the month. The city billed $64 million for 16 billion gallons of water last year.
“There should be a period of the day when you don’t use any water,” Anderson said. “So if it’s noticed that there’s no period in the day when you don’t use any water, that throws up a flag and then you can notify the customer.”
Meter reading technology has taken many forms over the years. Minneapolis stopped sending readers into basements in 1992, in part because so few people were home to let them in.
About 11,000 Minneapolis homes still have a telephone-based system that calls in a reading in the middle of the night. St. Paul once had outdoor odometer-like devices, which proved somewhat unreliable. Fridley is now phasing out a system in which residents record their use online or on a card they drop in the mail.
In Bloomington, most of the residential meters have touchpads that are read by a contractor with a reader gun. Bob Cockriel, Bloomington’s utilities superintendent, said they’ve waited on an upgrade partly because of the high cost of implementation.
“We’re trying to find a sweet spot. The technology … is changing,” Cockriel said.
One thing is certain: The colorful encounters of basement meter readers are a thing of the past.
Shawn Stotesbery, a utility service specialist in Bloomington, recounted his shock when his flashlight illuminated a female mannequin dressed in old-fashioned clothing in a dark basement, an elderly man seated on a couch nearby.
“There were mannequins sitting all around the room there,” Stotesbery said. “He was sitting down there with these mannequins smoking cigarettes.”
The door-to-door meter readers these days are more likely to be in rural communities, said Jack Kegel, executive director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association. Some elderly residents miss them when they disappear.
“They’d go out and talk to the meter reader,” Kegel said. “It was just a little something to brighten up their day.”