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City aims to quell water meter fears

Fears about the health and privacy impacts of St. Albert's new smart water meters, as well as concerns from residents who have not yet received notifications to have their meters changed out, has prompted the city's utilities director to speak out.

Fears about the health and privacy impacts of St. Albert's new smart water meters, as well as concerns from residents who have not yet received notifications to have their meters changed out, has prompted the city's utilities director to speak out.

Kevin Cole, with St. Albert's department of Infrastructure and Development Services, sat down with the Gazette Thursday in an effort to reassure residents.

On Monday, former city council member Jerry Manegre asked the city to apologize for a notice warning property owners could have their water shut off if they do not book an appointment to change their meter. It was the final notice Manegre received about the meters and he described it as "intimidating" and "coercive."

Cole said water shut-off would only happen as a last resort and residents should not generally be worried about that happening.

"That's absolutely our last course of action," he said.

"We want to work with customers where at all possible to get them to make an appointment."

Additionally, he said residents who have not yet received notices about the meters do not need to be concerned.

On Wednesday, the Gazette reported property owners received five notifications to upgrade their meters. Cole clarified Thursday that since the program is being rolled out neighbourhood by neighbourhood, only residents in Kingswood and Akinsdale are currently being asked to make appointments to change their meters.

"Only about 2,000 people so far have even got their first contact in the community, so many people have not even received their first notification yet," Cole said.

He added it would take 12 to 14 months for all neighbourhoods to be notified.

Privacy review underway

Among the concerns some residents have expressed about the new smart water meters is the possibility of privacy violation as the meters track water usage throughout the day.

Cole said the city is currently undertaking a standard privacy impact assessment to ensure the security of the system is adequate.

When property owners upgrade their meters, they will be able to login to a secure site to access their water use. The only other entity with access to that site is the city, and Cole said city staff would only need to do that if there was an issue with the meter.

"The city has no interest in people's water use, other than we want to let them know if there is a problem where there's a continuous leak in the home," he said.

If the meter has continuous flow for 15 minutes, it logs that information. If continuous flow happens for an entire 24-hour period, the system flags that meter and sends the city a notification of a continuous leak.

From there, the city would contact property owners within a few days to let them know about the issue.

"If we can catch it within a day or two, it's a much smaller bill they pay than if (water) runs for two months, which is the current frequency," Cole said.

City believes meters are safe

Another concern some residents have is the effect the radio frequency (RF) waves emitted by the meters could have on their health, but Cole said the city believes the meters are safe.

The meters, which have been certified by Industry Canada under Health Canada's safety code for RF waves, are a two-part system, which include the water meter itself (which doesn't emit RF waves) and an RF transmitter that will be affixed to the outside of homes.

The transmitter uses frequencies from 902 MHz to 928 MHz and sends data every 14 seconds as well as every seven and a half minutes.

Cole said the transmission every 14 seconds is a seven-millisecond "blip" that simply confirms the meter is still reporting. The transmission every seven and a half minutes contains more information about water use.

"The total amount of RF frequency waves that get sent out over the life of the meter is equivalent to approximately a seven-minute cellphone call," he said.

In response to residents concerns, the city agreed to start an opt-out program for the RF transmitter, which will come at a cost to those looking to opt out. The cost will be set by council during budget deliberations in November and December.

Cole confirmed residents need to be pro-active about opting out, meaning they need to contact the city and let city staff know.


April Hudson

About the Author: April Hudson

April is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette
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