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No opt-out program for automated water meters

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

A dollar a day. That’s about how much it would have cost to opt out of having an automated water meter reader on your property, a device that — depending on your point of view — harmlessly helps the utility provider read your water bill or poses health and privacy risks.

The Board of the Woodinville Water District voted 4-1 last week not to offer ratepayers the chance to opt out of using the automated meter readers (AMR) for a fee, following several months of concerns from some customers.

The board evaluated how much it would have to charge customers to opt out of having AMR meters and determined that offering a paid opt-out program wouldn’t satisfy customers who’ve complained, because they believe the opt-out should be free.

Installation of Woodinville’s AMR equipment, which consists of a radio that attaches to the current water meter, began in June. Every four hours, the radio transmits usage data to a base station for 56 milliseconds, producing radiofrequency (RF) energy similar to that of a cell phone or Wi-Fi, but at a much lower level, according to the water district.

Aurora (who has no last name), a WWD ratepayer and Kirkland resident, commented at the meeting that the AMR is a new technology that, like smoking and asbestos, may later be proven dangerous even though it seemed safe at first. She acknowledged that the board had sought an expert’s opinion about the risks, but questioned whether his claim that AMR is safe was unbiased.

“The research shows that industry-sponsored research, about 75 percent of that research says that there’s no problem with smart meters, automated meters; 25 percent says there is,” Aurora said. “Non-industry-sponsored research, people who are not connected with the manufacturers of smart meters, it’s the opposite.”

The board says the best available science shows AMR is safe, and the board’s discussion focused instead on the public’s rights and choices.

“The people have spoken. They think that an opt-out should be free,” Commissioner Karen Steeb said. “And so if we offer an opt-out, the fact that we are going to charge is not going to meet their needs. I think we’ve gone to a lot of work to see what the cost would be, but from what I’ve heard, $60 a billing cycle or the equivalent of $1 a day, even, I don’t think, from the people I’ve heard speaking before us, I don’t think they’re going to be satisfied with that.”

The $60 estimated cost per two-month billing cycle covers the extra costs the district would incur by continuing to read manual meters after automating most of the system, General Manager Ken Howe said.

Josh del Sol, a Woodinville resident who made a documentary about the risks of “smart meters,” confirmed after the meeting that paying to opt out of AMR wasn’t acceptable to him.

“We’re looking at people being harmed,” he said. “It’s not okay to charge people money to not be harmed, to not be irradiated or not give up the information of how they use water in their homes. It’s like extortion.”

Del Sol and Aurora have previously said RF energy which they have measured from the meters at a higher level than the manufacturer reports, causes cancer. In other cities, people have reported flu-like symptoms such as nausea and headaches after smart meters were installed, although they didn’t know the meters had been installed.

Privacy advocates are also concerned that by collecting information about people’s energy and water usage from “smart meters,” utility companies and governments can glean detailed information about people’s private lives and sell that information to advertisers (as a utility company in Australia did.)

Commissioner Ed Cebron, president of the board, added that a few people opting out won’t offer much protection from the alleged risks of RF energy: “To some degree, this option is one of symbolism, not pragmatics, because there’s going to be 15,000 customers out there that have these. If a few hundred opt out, there’s still 15,000 of them out there operating.”

Commissioner Paj Hwang was the only one who voted against not offering an opt-out, saying it was best to give people choices as long as the ones who opt out pay the costs and don’t burden other ratepayers with the cost.

The water district has previously offered a response to concerns about AMR, saying the AMR equipment is well within federal limits for RF exposure. The data from the meters will be encrypted and the district has no plans to sell customers’ information to advertisers, Public Information Officer Debbie Rannfeldt said.

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