This undated handout photo shows a water meter left, and an Encoder-Receiver-Transmitter, or ERT, used for remote meter reading. 

Lancaster city’s water bureau needs a little more cooperation from its customers.

The bureau is shifting to a fully automated meter reading system, a project it hopes to complete by the end of the year.

It requires installation of a device known as an “ERT” — short for Encoder-Receiver-Transmitter — on individual customers’ meters, which is done by appointment.

But so far, more than 3,700 customers haven’t made appointments, despite receiving two letters and having hangers placed on their doors, deputy public works director Matt Metzler said.

Those customers are now getting a final round of door hangers, he and meter supervisor Mark Kelly said.

If that doesn’t get a response, the city tentatively plans to send out final notices by certified mail beginning the second week of April, telling customers they have 10 days to make an appointment.

If they don’t, their water will be shut off.

A utility shutoff is a serious matter: Among other things, it can be grounds for declaring a property unfit for habitation.

Metzler said he hopes the final notice is effective. He’d like to keep actual shutoffs to a minimum — no more than 1 to 2 percent of the backlog.

Mayor Danene Sorace, too, said emphatically: “We do not want to shut off water.”

But the work has to be done, and the city can’t just keep sending out notice after notice, she said.

Phase by phase

The city water system serves about 140,000 people. Its roughly 47,000 accounts are split roughly 36 percent to 64 percent between the city on the one hand and Millersville and portions of eight townships on the other.

About 68 percent of the customers who haven’t responded are suburban, Kelly said.

In some cases, the problem is absentee landlords. The city is doing its best to find and notify them, Sorace said.

The installation of the automated system began last summer and is being done in phases. In all, more than 44,000 ERTs will be installed. (There are several thousand customers, primarily industrial accounts, that are not affected.)

About 70 percent of the time, the city is swapping out old meters for new ones, as well. Meters 14 years and older are being replaced, Kelly said.

So far, the city has contacted a little over 60 percent of its customers —meaning more than 16,000 accounts have yet to receive the first letter.

The ERT installation is free, as is the meter upgrade, if it’s performed. Customers whose water is shut off for cause, however, will be charged an $83 reconnection fee.

Remote meter reading is expected to save at least $130,000 to $200,000 a year. It’s expected to largely eliminate the need for estimates. It can also be used to flag spikes in water usage, allowing the bureau to spot leaks quickly.

The overhaul is budgeted at about $10.5 million, plus another $2 million to $2.5 million for the replacement water meters.

Sending out certified mail costs nearly $7 per letter, not including staff time, Metzler said.

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