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Halifax County Public Utilities is embarking on an advanced metering infrastructure which department Director Christopher Williams told commissioners Monday will help provide better service throughout the county.

In documentation for a capital project ordinance request Williams wrote that the project is needed to help “realize the full benefits of the currently available technology in our existing metering program.”

The cost of the project, which the board approved unanimously, is $1,650,000 and funding for the project will come from unrestricted revenues in the general fund made available as replacement revenue under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Williams noted in documentation contained in the agenda packet that the department recommends upgrading and installing an advanced metering infrastructure project consisting of fixed based antennas located throughout the service area. “This system will help us to provide better customer service through enhanced leak detection on the customer side of the meter, reduce or eliminate multiple visits to customer locations for tenant changes and monitor illegal water use on closed accounts,” he wrote. “Additionally, this technology will provide us with system pressure readings through strategically placed sensors within the distribution network.”

With the exception of locations with signal interference — estimated at less than 3 percent or approximately 300 meters — monthly meter readings will be collected in the timespan of an hour rather than five to seven days, eliminating the need to drive by each meter location.

The project, which he told the board would take about a year to implement, will allow the department “to utilize our employee resources more efficiently to address repairs and correct service issues. System monitoring capabilities of this technology will allow us to provide a more efficient and reliable water distribution system for our customers.”

The capital project ordinance also requested the board approve the measure and award the contract to Ferguson Enterprises LLC without going through the public bidding process which is allowed by state statutes in certain circumstances.

Ferguson has done work for the county in the past, Williams confirmed in response to a question by board Chair Vernon Bryant. “Currently they are the only vendor of Sensus metering equipment which is what we use throughout the county.”

He said in order to ensure standardization and that everything would work correctly the county has to use their equipment.

The antennas will be placed on the county’s water towers, Williams told Commissioner Chenoa Davis. “There’s approximately 3 percent of our network that due to terrain or topography, due to the location of the meter we won’t be able to pick that up. We’re currently reading 8,400 meters driving by every month. This would significantly reduce that. We take seven to 10 days to read meters and then we send the truck out to read those we can’t read.”

In response to Commissioner Carolyn Johnson, Williams said it will probably take approximately a year to get everything installed and activated as well as provide training. “What’s been explained to me, they like to install the towers and then focus on getting one tower working and communicating correctly and then move to another tower.”

The project will require nine or 10 antennas throughout the county, Williams said, located on the department’s existing water towers with the exception of one which will be located at an EMS station.

Asked by Bryant whether the system would require less staff, Williams said it would leave the meter reading staff as is “because now their roles will shift into monitoring and maintenance of the system.”

There are currently a large number of meters that are not reading or not reading accurately. “That affects directly our ability to track water usage so we’re losing revenues. This will help us to catch up.”

Williams said the system will bring the department into current technology.

County Attorney Glynn Rollins said he and Williams had many discussions about the public bidding portion of the proposal. “Chris has done a very good job of documenting why we could not do public bidding on this amount of money.”

Rollins said approval of the ordinance does three things: Moves funds to the project; acknowledges that the board is approving the contract without public bidding; and allows the county manager to execute all contracts.

“Legally, I wanted to be sure we’re OK and we are because as you all know certain amounts of money you have to have publicly bid contracts unless there’s an exception and this is one that does qualify as an exception to public bidding,” Rollins said.