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Possible Salem meter project could top $1 million

SALEM — Members of the city Utilities Commission may need to add replacement of residential water meters to their list of upcoming projects, with a possible price tag of $1.2 million.

Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart provided the commission with a report showing how unaccounted water loss has increased over the past five years as the current water meters have aged, acknowledging that water main breaks, fires and other municipal uses also contribute.

“I’m just giving you a heads up that this is coming,” Weingart said.

Residential water meters were last changed out in 1990, making them 30 years old and in need of replacing.

According to the unaccounted water report, which represents water that has come through the plant but hasn’t been billed, the amount of unaccounted water was 13.9 percent in 1990 and in 2020 that amount was 23.3 percent. Weingart noted on his report that in 2020, the department metered 758 million gallons being pumped from the water treatment plant. He also noted that 3 percent unaccounted water would have been equal to a $63,859 revenue loss per year.

The cost of a new meter goes anywhere from $180 to $253 with a battery life of 20 years. Once the battery dies, the whole meter has to be replaced.

“We are losing an awful lot of water,” Utilities Commission Chair Bob Hodgson said, noting there’s a cost associated with that.

Weingart said they wouldn’t have to necessarily replace all 6,800 meters because some meters have been replaced over the years. There had also been talk about retrofitting some meters, but Howells & Baird engineer Jon Vollnogle said there’s really no cost savings there.

In one community he worked with on meter replacements, the bid price wasn’t any better for retrofitting than just getting new meters. He also said the department would get much more accuracy in billing by going to the new technology.

Commission Vice Chair Randy Malmsberry asked if this possible cost was incorporated into the water rate study being prepared by RCAP (Rural Community Assistance Program), saying they need that information if they’re looking at what expenses they’re going to have in figuring out a recommended water rate increase.

Assistant Superintendent Butch Donnalley said he thought RCAP was figuring a cost into the study for water meters.

The commission also discussed the status of the engineering for the water treatment plant project, learning a purchase order and signed agreement had not been completed. Weingart said there wasn’t enough money to cover the entire engineering cost, but Hodgson said it was his understanding that the city would be billed on a monthly basis, which he confirmed with an Alfred Benesch representative.

“Let’s work out the details. We need to get moving on this so we can see what funding is out there,” Hodgson said, referring to the project cost of $14.5 million.

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