Imagine being able to access up-to-date hourly readings of your home’s energy usage from your smartphone or tablet — anytime and anywhere.

The electric meters outside your home are being replaced with digital meters that include new technology meant to make utilities more efficient and save money and give you more information about your energy usage.

By the end of this year, all 25,000 Johnson County REMC customers could be using new digital meters the utility is installing.

Other utilities also are considering the switch, including Duke Energy. But some say the cost up front isn’t worth it, especially with new technology that allows them to read the current meters from a vehicle.

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Digital utility meters, sometimes referred to as smart meters, allow two-way communication. That allows the utility to monitor both energy consumption and power outages remotely. Most importantly, they eliminate the need to send meter readers out to homes and other buildings. They also allow the utility to respond to power outages more quickly, since they are immediately displayed on digital map screens in the utility’s dispatch center. And electrical services can be connected or disconnected without sending a utility worker out to a site.

Bottom line: That saves money because the utility doesn’t have to employ a fleet of meter readers to drive to every home and business to record electric usage, said Chet Aubin, chief executive officer of Johnson County REMC.

“Now, we will be able to monitor 25,000 meters every hour, every day with no meter readers on site,” Aubin said.

As a side benefit, the utility makes energy consumption information available to customers when they log in to their accounts. This allows them to keep an eye on how much energy they are using and look for ways to conserve and save money, Aubin said.

Johnson County REMC is the first local utility to install digital meters. The electric utility installed 1,000 last year with customers who volunteered for a test run. After getting positive feedback on the devices, the utility began the process of installing them for all of its customers in January. The meters cost about $100 apiece and are being paid for as part of a $6 million system improvement plan. Half of this plan is paid for through the utility’s general funds, and the other half is funded by a loan.

Now, about 10,000 meters have been installed, and the Johnson County REMC hopes to have the remaining 15,000 put in by the end of the year. So far, they’ve been a success, Aubin said.

“We’ve seen some really positive results so far from these meters in the form of reduced travel time for our employees and increased customer satisfaction,” Aubin said. “We’ve even gotten letters from some of the customers who appreciate having a more active role in monitoring their energy usage.”

Johnson County REMC customers will be allowed to opt out of the new meters but would have to pay an extra $44 a month — the price of sending a meter reader out to a site, Aubin said.

Duke Energy is developing a seven-year power grid improvement plan that also would bring digital meters to all of its 30,000 Johnson County customers. The plan would still need Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approval, and would not allow customers to opt out due to the higher cost and inefficiency of maintaining two different systems, said Lew Middleton, Duke Energy spokesperson.

“There are always concerns when new technology comes out, since we tend to be afraid of what we don’t understand,” Middleton says. “We plan to educate our consumers to alleviate any of their concerns and ensure them that these meters are completely safe and they should take advantage of this opportunity.”

Other utilities in Johnson County in recent years have either implemented or are considering another form of digital metering technology — mobile radio-read meters. These battery-powered meters, transmit signals to meter reading devices installed in utility trucks. This allows a utility worker to drive through a neighborhood and collect information from several meters without stopping the truck.

Indiana American Water, which serves 26,000 customers in Johnson County, recently installed radio-read meters for its customers and has been able to reduce its meter-reading crew significantly.

“We used to have four people who did meter reading,” said Joe Loughmiller, manager of external affairs. “We now have one. Where a meter reader used to be able to only read 300 to 400 meters in a day, we can now literally read thousands of meters a day.”

Bargersville Utilities, which serves 3,427 customers in the Bargersville and Whiteland areas, is also happy with its radio-read utility meters and sees no need to make the move to digital utility meters.

“We don’t want to take the next step at this time because our current radio-read meter system is working pretty well for us at our size,” said Kevin McGinnis, town manager of Bargersville. “We’re fortunate to be in a good spot for watching everybody else, though.”

Vectren Corp. also is considering a move to drive-by radio-read meters for its 46,000 Johnson County natural gas customers, said Natalie Hedde, director of corporate communication.

How do they work?

Here’s a look at Johnson County REMC’s new digital utility meters and how they work.

  • The meter records electricity usage information
  • It then sends out an hourly signal that transmits the information back to the utility’s dispatch center via fiber-optic cables.
  • From there, the information is analyzed and shared with customers
  • The meters also send signals when there is an outage.
  • Utilities can send signals to digital utility meters to remotely connect or disconnect services