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When people used to read their own meters...

How to Calculate Your Own BillTwenty years ago, the majority of Eastern Maine Electric Co-op’s members read their own meters. If that seems quaint in retrospect, consider that there was actually a time when most members read their own meters AND calculated their own electric bills. What follows are some of the changes that have taken place in metering and billing over the years at EMEC.

In the 1940s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s, as rural electric utilities were just starting out, Co-op members would read their own meters and calculate their bill based on how much energy they had used. Then they’d return a check with their bill based on their own calculations.The picture to the left shows the instructions members received from the Co-op, including when to add a late fee if the payment wouldn’t arrive by the due date. It was a system that seems incredible today. 

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Co‑op began computerizing its bills so that no one had to perform their own calculations, but the majority of members still had to provide their own meter readings.The Co-op has only ever had one full-time meter reader at a time, and there was no way for him to reach every house in the Co‑op’s 3,000-square-mile territory. Most members outside Calais and Baileyville still had to read their own meters.

Meter reading itself is not as simple as it might seem. It is one thing to do so if the meter’s register presents readings in numerals, like the odometer on a car. It’s another thing altogether to read a meter with a dial register.Self Read Bill SampleOn a dial meter, some of the dials move clockwise, and others move counter-clockwise, an arrangement that many have found confusing. In those days, bills were printed and mailed on simple postcards, which included a space for members to write their latest readings down. When members sent their monthly payments, they also sent the meter reading that would be the basis of their next month’s bill. Once a year, the meters would be read by Co-op employees.
Meters themselves didn’t change much over the course of the twentieth century.  In fact, some of the meters still in use today are based on the same technology as the watt-hour meters first commercially produced in 1888. They are mechanical meters that use the rotation of a  silver disk to measure how much electricity has passed through the meter.

 

The Digital Era Arrives

In 1997, EMEC became the first utility in Maine to deploy widespread automated meter reading in its system. The Co-op chose the TurtleTM system, which counts the number of times the silver disk turns, calculating the new reading. 

The Turtle system is a “Power Line Carrier” (PLC) system, which means the automated readers send the reading data over the power lines to the Co-op . These first-generation automated readers have brought many advantages for the Co-op and its members. They save money when a house changes occupants because a line worker no longer has to drive long distances to get a final meter reading for the outgoing resident’s account. The automated readers also provide more-or-less daily readings to Co-op members, rather than just one reading for the entire month. Daily readings can be helpful in determining what happened when one month’s bill is suddenly higher than other recent bills. 


I-70-S Model MeterThe Turtles changed how meters are read, but technology has not stood still for the meters themselves. At the beginning of the 21st century, solid-state meters were already replacing some of the mechanical meters.Solid-state meters are all-electronic: they have no mechanical disk. This new style of meter is more economical to manufacture.By 2006, the writing was on the wall for mechanical meters, when General Electric discontinued the I-70-S model (pictured right), a workhorse since the 1960’s. By 2010, all of the major manufacturers had stopped producing mechanical meters.

The mechanical meters became less available, but EMEC’s solid-state meters continued to come fitted with Turtles, which send readings to the Cooperative over the power lines.

 

More Convenience, More Information

 

Meanwhile, Eastern Maine Electric’s billing had also continued to evolve. When members no longer had to read their own meters, the postcard bills became obsolete. For that reason and numerous others, the Co-op’s postcard bills were replaced in 1999 with letter-sized bills in envelopes. The new bill format provided more information to Co-op members, and it also allowed the Co-op to send members news and updates in the form of bill inserts. 

With the advent of electric deregulation, the costs reflected on the bills were split into line items in two bill sections: delivery and supply. “Delivery” charges cover costs associated with building, operating, and maintaining the local delivery grid. “Supply” costs are related to the generation and supply of electricity, which is provided by a third-party company. While EMEC bills for both delivery and supply, only the delivery charges are used to operate the Co-op itself. Members’ payments for supply are forwarded to the third-party supply company, a role that has been filled by several different companies over the years since deregulation. As of this article’s public

ation, the supply company for EMEC members is New Brunswick Power Generation Corporation.


In 2004, 24-hour options for viewing and paying bills became available to Co-op members. EMEC was among the first of the state’s electric utilities to make these online services possible. E-Billing also allowed paperless bills for the first time.

Click here to visit EMEC SmartHUb

Then, in 2014, the Co-op offered SmartHub, a downloadable application for Apple and Android Smart Devices. In addition to opening your bill in your web browser, it can now come directly to your phone or tablet.

 

Next Evolutionary Steps

 

In March of 2017, the Co-op began deploying an upgraded version of the meter-reading technology used here since 1997. The upgraded technology is called TWACS (Two-Way Automated Communication System), and it will bring a number of advantages for Co-op members as it is deployed over the next several years. Among other things, the upgrade will eventually provide the Co-op with faster and more accurate information about outages during widespread storms. We will talk more about this and other improvements as the upgrades affect more and more Co-op members in the months and years ahead. As with the Turtles, the signals from the meter are sent over the power lines.


As a consumer-owned, not-for-profit utility, Eastern Maine Electric works to balance technological progress with personal availability to our members. Over the years, the Co-op has been a leader in providing new conveniences and improved services. We will continue to look for new efficiencies and improvements while holding onto the personal connections that make Cooperatives a more responsive kind of electric utility.

 

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