Aging water meters usually mean revenue down the drain for cities that aren't getting an accurate picture of what is flowing through their customers' taps.
But little by little, Wheeling is trying to replace its old meters and equip them with technology that frees up valuable time for workers and opens up a wealth of information useful to the water department in pinpointing problems. City Council will vote April 15 on whether to spend about $120,000 to purchase 126 new two-inch water meters for commercial customers, with a transmitter attached that allows them to be read remotely from the street - even at a distance of up to a half-mile away, more than four stories underground.
Public Works Director Russell Jebbia can't say with certainty how much revenue water loss costs the city each year. But he does know aging meters are a big part of the problem.
"As they get older, they wear and they slow down," he said. "More water is actually going through the meter than what it's telling us. ... We've been losing more water through the (commercial) meters than we were through the residential meters."
This will be the first batch of commercial meters to be installed with the remote-reading technology. In 2012, the city began the process of upgrading residential meters, selecting the Clearview area and the neighborhood surrounding Wheeling Park High School as a test group of sorts.
About 700 residential meters have been converted. That's just over 5 percent of the city's total customer base, but Jebbia said the results have been noticeable in terms of efficiency - particularly in the Clearview area, where customers are a little more spread out than in other areas of the city.
"It used to take two guys three days to read those meters. It takes one guy two hours to do that now," Jebbia said.
There are other benefits, as well. The city doesn't have the manpower to read 13,000 meters manually every month, so each meter gets read once every two months. Bills are based on estimates of usage for the months in between. Once the entire system is converted, Jebbia said, each customer will get an accurate reading each and every month.
And when water department workers read the meters, the device will alert them to anything abnormal - a constant flow of water through a meter for an extended period of time that could signal a leak, for example. They also have the ability to download history of all activity in the meter at five-minute intervals for up to three months.