Published in the September 13, 2018 edition


NORTH READING —There are bound to be glitches whenever a large public works project is undertaken and such is the case with the town-wide water meter change-out.

Last fall, for the first time in over 27 years, the town’s Water Department began planning for the change-out of every residential and commercial water meter in town, with the assistance of a private engineering firm, Thielsch Engineering of Cranston, R.I., and installations handled by a third-party contractor, USI Services. Since the spring, the company has completed installations neighborhood by neighborhood, initially focusing east of Central Street. Soon, notifications will be sent to neighborhoods west of Central Street via postcard, requesting customers to schedule their appointments either online or by calling USI’s toll-free phone number.

Because the change-outs are being done in particular geographical locations it is not unusual for some residents to have received one or more postcard reminders while others have not received any notice yet, so don’t panic if a first notice has not yet arrived; it will.

A typical change-out process takes about 45 minutes but since every home is different, some take as little as 20 minutes and others take more time.

While the vast majority of the change-outs to date have gone smoothly, some glitches have surfaced. Last weekend, USI installers made unannounced visits to homeowners who had been sent multiple postcard notices but had not set up their appointment. It had been announced at last Thursday night’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting that such visits would occur on Saturday, Sept. 8. USI Services employees carry badges and travel in marked vehicles.

A few complaints surfaced via social media that USI employees had threatened homeowners that their water would be shut off if they did not comply with the water meter change-out within seven days; however, the town has no such intention of turning off anyone’s water for non-compliance. Some postcards had also been sent to homeowners with the same warning even though the town had told the company not to include such a message. Other postcards were mistakenly sent with Billerica’s town seal instead of North Reading’s town seal.

Contacted by the Transcript on Monday about this threat of water being shut off that had been used by some USI employees, Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto stressed that was not true and explained that at the June water rate hearing the Board of Selectmen decided that non-compliance would be handled differently here than in other communities. A higher meter reading fee would be issued to those customers who refused the new meters rather than shutting off their water. The higher fee would account for the additional manpower needed to read the meter in person.

The old meters read the water down to the nearest 1,000 gallons and have to be read in person while the new smart meters use an RF signal to automatically send water rate usage back to the town that is accurate to the nearest gallon.

“It was determined that we would handle it by a more significant meter reading fee on people who were refusing to have their meters converted. That is still the intention. It is unlikely to be implemented until we have finished all of the geographical areas in town. But we haven’t gotten to that point yet. Our focus is the area east of Central Street and we’ll be moving further west next,” Gilleberto told the Transcript.

“We told (USI) back in August that we are not shutting people’s water off so please stop telling people that, but they continue to do it, so they have been re-advised of the policy,” he added.

The T.A. said while not an excuse for the misinformation a possible reason for it could be that USI has brought in additional staff “to really intensify the effort to make progress toward concluding changing all the meters out. It could be an instance where you have new people coming in who haven’t been told that we’re not turning off the water (for noncompliance) because apparently it is a common practice that they employ in many of the communities.”

In a few other instances, homeowners scheduled their appointments but the meter connection was an incorrect size, therefore they were told they’d be called when the correct size was in stock to reschedule. In the interim postcards were sent to those homeowners stating they had not complied with the change-out.

The T.A. said he was aware of one resident who had had their appointment canceled because of the water meter size. He checked with Water Superintendent Mark Clark who explained that sometimes the record of the size of the water meter connection inside a particular home does not match what the installer finds in field, therefore it cannot be done.

“The records are not 100 percent accurate. I have not heard of anyone getting harassed after scheduling the appointment but not having the meter actually changed because the information was wrong; that clearly should not be happening. I will need to follow up with Mark (Clark) about why that is happening,” he said.

It is an “incremental” size difference in the pipes that may vary by fractions of an inch in those circumstances, Gilleberto explained.

“The town has advised the contractor previously, and will advise them again, of the town’s policy not to shut off water,” Gilleberto said.