072219_watermeters

Shawn Smith, an operator at the wastewater treatment plant, stands on catwalk that leads to an aerator where a bearing had broken overnight. It would require a shutdown and repair at the plant.

DARIEN — Solid brass has long been the standard for quality and durability.

But in switching from brass to plastic water meters, Darien has laid the groundwork to increase efficiency and secure a $2.2 million revenue bond that will help it reduce debt payments and upgrade its wastewater treatment plant.

The new meters are not only far more accurate, they will save on manpower as water department workers can work full-time on maintenance and operations rather than taking time off to read water meters each month, said City Manager Tim Sweezey.

That alone will save the city $60,000 a year, he said.

“We will finally be able to control our revenue stream coming into the city,’’ Sweezey said.

And they’re doing it through a deal with Georgia Power, a company that provides natural gas and electricity. When it went to smart meters in Darien, Georgia Power had excess capacity on the system it installed to read meters remotely.

Darien is using some of that excess to read its new battery-powered meters that, unlike the old brass models, have a 20-year warranty on accuracy.

The problem with the brass models is that water usage is gauged as it travels through impellers that erode over time and lose accuracy, Sweezey said. That was a problem with customer service, he said.

“When I was sitting down with a customer, I couldn’t say this meter is accurate. I believe in this meter,’’ he said.

He can now, and it means revenue per customer won’t drop off as meters age. In fact, by taking hourly instead of monthly readings, the meters could show customers periods of high usage such as laundry days.

That, with a floor on rates included in bond documents, means the city shouldn’t have to worry about its debt service.

Only about a third of the bond issue — some $700,000 — will go toward repairs and upgrades at the sewage treatment plant.

But plant manager Keith Wilson said it’s badly needed and will go a long way.

The aging plant is probably less efficient than one of those brass meters.

The plant is permitted to process 600,000 gallons of wastewater daily and is running wide open just to process about half that amount.

“We’re teetering around 100 percent,’’ Wilson said of the level the system is operating. “We’re working it like a dog right now.’’

One issue is aeration, adding oxygen to the waste stream to keep the bacteria that consumes the harmful wastes healthy and working, Wilson said.

The other is frequent breakdowns such as one that wastewater operator Shawn Smith found when he got to work Tuesday morning. A bearing on a big aerator had broken and jumped out of place, leaving the end of a shaft turning loosely in the housing where the bearing had been.

“Yesterday, I washed that down. Everything was fine,’’ he said.

The aerator would have to be shut down so the maintenance crew could replace the $2,500 bearing.

Jeff Bohr, who will oversee the upgrade for Roberts Civil Engineering, agreed that much of the plant is antiquated.

“You were patching components that were completely at the end of their life cycle,’’ he told Wilson.

Even the old components that were working weren’t operating anywhere near their designed capacity, he said.

And when things break after the upgrade, they will be easily available and less expensive unlike the current setup with a lot of proprietary motors, bearings and other parts, Wilson said.

“We wanted to ensure it wasn’t proprietary,’’ Wilson said.

Parts that would cost $20,000 on the current system will be available in the $1,000 range, he said.

“You don’t have to buy it from a specific vendor,’’ Wilson said.

Some things had to be custom made such as a 14-foot rotor shaft that alone would cost $7,000, he said.

Wilson and Bohr agreed that once the plant is upgraded, it should get back to operating at about 50 percent capacity leaving it capable of accommodating growth.

Sweezey and Mayor Bubba Hodge both said Darien is adding residents who will become customers.

Suddenly, a lot of people want to live in Darien, Hodge said.

Bohr said there will be a pre-construction meeting on the project in about a week and that work should begin the first week in August.

“A lot will start happening out there on the site,’’ Bohr said during a telephone interview.

The project should be complete in about six months, he said.

Wilson said the project is being done because Sweezey took time to get out of the office and see for himself what was wrong.

“As soon as he got here, he spent an hour and a half walking around out here,’’ Wilson said.

The city is making another change that will provide some efficiency in law enforcement by moving its police headquarters back downtown.

“It’s a shame that you have to drive past the Sheriff’s Office to get to the Police Department,’’ Hodge said.

Police are currently outside the city limit in the industrial park off Georgia 251 west of Interstate 95.

Their new headquarters will be in the heart of the city beside the fire department overlooking U.S. 17. The fire department is in a former Ford dealership that the city leases from a bank. Sweezey said the plan is for the city to own the building and land outright and for it to become part of a consolidated public safety complex.

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