Over the next year, workers from a company called Corix will fan out across Madison, gradually making their way into most of Madison's 67,000 properties - every home, business and apartment in the city - to install new wireless water meter systems.
To some, that's great news.
The $13 million undertaking, dubbed Project H20, will conserve water by allowing the Madison Water Utility to quickly detect and fix leaks, let customers track their daily water consumption online, and eliminate the need for "meter readers" to walk or drive from house to house, according to city officials. It will also allow for monthly billing rather than the current twice-a-year statements.
"We can save water and make our system last longer," says Tom Heikkinen, water utility general manager.
What's not to love?
Plenty, skeptics say.
At a July 10 meeting of the utility board, 16 residents aired a host of concerns just days after 33 residents petitioned the state Public Service Commission to halt the project and launch an investigation of "smart meters." The commission has until early September to rule on the petition.
Smart meters are small, low-power radio transmitters that will send data by radio frequency to receivers mounted on utility poles across the city. Among concerns, critics worry the meters will add an unhealthy layer of electromagnetic radiation to a world already clogged with cell phone towers, wireless routers and microwave ovens.
The petitioners also wonder if the meters' intermittent signals will disrupt pacemakers, defibrillators or "deep-brain stimulators" used by epileptics or Parkinson's patients. They even wonder if the meters would "make our dogs and cats sick."
Some have bristled at having a private contractor "tromp around in their basement," as water utility board vice president Dan Melton put it, during the half-hour it would take to install the new devices. Others questioned if the wireless system is safeguarded against hackers.
Heikkinen and others say such concerns are misguided. The system is safe and secure, will replace outdated equipment, and will help the utility reach its goal of reducing water consumption 20% by 2020, he says. Similar systems have been installed in cities across the United States, though Madison would be among the first in Wisconsin, according to Heikkinen.
"We do not believe there is a health risk associated with this technology," he says. "It's much less than a cell phone."
Still, smart meters - both for water and electrical utilities - have sparked controversy in many states, and Melton thinks too many questions remain. He wishes the city could put the brakes on a project "that affects everyone."
"I think the city would be well advised to take some more time on this."
Slowing down, however, might not be an option.
After the project was announced in 2010, the Common Council last December approved a contract with Washington-based Itron Inc. to implement and maintain the system. Itron has subcontracted the installation to Corix, headquartered in Wauwatosa, to complete the work by spring 2013.
The project's start date has already been pushed back twice since April. On Monday, the first installations on a pilot group of 757 homes on the northeast side got underway, says Robin Piper, the utility's customer service manager.
"The clock is ticking," Heikkinen says. More delays could cost the utility money.
The city has extended an olive branch of sorts to detractors. Under a draft policy - on hold until the PSC issues a ruling on the citizen petition - residents could "opt out" of the project, either by paying $50 to have transmitters installed outside their homes (rather than in basements, which is typical) or by paying $10 a month to leave their analog systems untouched. The latter fee would ostensibly cover the costs of having a city employee read the meters manually. Any fee, however, would require the PSC's approval.
Dolores Kester, a retired attorney and north-side resident who signed the PSC petition, says the opt-out provision is a "giant step forward." But she hopes the utility will ax the fees, as the state of Vermont has for residents who choose not to use smart meters there. And she wonders how residents will be adequately informed about this "very, very complicated" issue.
In a straw poll, the majority of the water utility board on July 10 supported the $10-a-month fee but shot down an additional $75 opt-out charge. Melton, however, calls the monthly charge "punitive" and thinks any costs associated with the opt-out should be spread across all ratepayers.
The proposed fee "is meant to punish and act as a disincentive for those that wish to opt out," he says in a phone interview. "I really feel strongly that that is not a wise road to go down."
Water utility board president Madeline Gotkowitz counters with an analogy, comparing the new meters to Madison's decision to fluoridate its water in the public's best interest. If residents don't want fluoride, they can buy water from a store, she says.
"Ultimately, they make their own decision," she says. With an opt-out policy, "I'm glad people will be able to have a choice here."
If you have a few years to spare, type the words "radio frequency" and "health" into Google and start reading.
In June, that was basically the challenge undertaken by Public Health Madison and Dane County officials, who concluded that "no adverse health impacts" would come from smart meters. Based on a "thorough review" of research, there's "little evidence" linking health problems with the meters, officials said.
Cell phones, like smart meters, emit radio frequencies, a form of electromagnetic radiation, and a panel of the World Health Organization created a stir last spring when it said it was "possible" that cell phones cause cancer. But opinions are mixed. An overview by the National Cancer Institute says that studies "have not shown a consistent link" between cell phones and cancer but that "more research is needed."
At the July 10 water utility board meeting, resident Rachel Durfee also raised the issue of "electromagnetic field sensitivity," sharing the story of a friend who suffers headaches and stomach pain due to, she said, the proliferation of wireless devices. Smart meters, she said, would add to her woes.
But research cited by the water utility claims that standing 10 feet from a meter exposes you to levels of radio frequencies 100 times lower than being in a cafe with wireless access or at your laptop.
Findings like that have convinced Gotkowitz that while residents "are entitled to their opinions," the meters are safe.
Melton adopts a middle ground. While skeptics shouldn't cry that "the sky is falling," the city shouldn't claim the meters "are perfectly safe."
"At least I want defenders of this to say it's in dispute," he says. "Surely they can acknowledge that much."