Dogs and weather are not the biggest threat to the city’s utility meter readers.
Lee Chilton, who has read meters in LaGrange for 11 years, says his biggest issue is the flying variety – wasps, bees and yellow jackets.
“I’m not allergic, but I don’t like getting stung,” he said.
Over the years, though, he’s figured out how to deal with the pests: keep still if you see them.
“The more still you are, the better,” he said. “They see you moving.”
Spider webs also are a problem, you can be amongst them before you see them and wind up swatting it off you the rest of the day. Chilton said the city used to have to open water meter boxes to read them and he’d always find a black widow spider.
“It’s too bad there’s not a market for black widow spiders,” he joked. “I could make a lot of money.”
Chilton and his fellow meter readers read customers’ gas, water and electric meters once a month. There are 21 “reading days” in a month, the other days account for weekends and holidays and the last day of the month when they only do work orders.
Work orders are when the readers have to disconnect utilities due to someone moving out or not paying.
Chilton had three such orders on a recent Thursday morning: One was a move-out, the other two hadn’t paid their bill on time.
The city does “robocalls” the night before it cuts off utilities to warn residents they’re coming and give them one last chance to pay. At the second house, Chilton is greeted by a mother with two small children in diapers who tells her someone was supposed to take her to City Hall to pay her bill, but hasn’t arrived.
“I have to disconnect them anyway,” Chilton tells her.
Chilton says he does feel bad for the customers who can’t pay.
“I do feel for them,” he said. “But I work for the city, and it’s the city’s power.”
If the city started making exceptions and leaving utilities on for certain circumstances, it would be impossible to keep up with.
“If we said we wouldn’t cut your power if you had babies in the house, people would start borrowing babies,” Chilton said.
Chilton’s meter reading route on this day is a group of streets on the south side of Lafayette Parkway. He’s got his handheld device that records the readings and a touchread probe that reads water meters and some gas meters. The probe looks like a smaller version of the devices used in places like Walmart and Kroger for employees to check prices. It has a rubber tip that is placed in the center of the circle on the water meter cover, and the reading is passed electronically to the handheld device.
Electric, along with most gas meters must be “eyeballed” and read individually by the meter reader and recorded on the handheld.
There are meter reading devices that will read meters remotely as the meter reader drives by, but the city hasn’t switched to that technology.
“That’s mostly because of cost,” said Barry Johnson, who supervises Chilton and the rest of the readers.
Most readers walk their routes, but the neighborhood Chilton is in is spread out, so he drives, making frequent stops. Along with his reading equipment, he carries a radio to communicate back with City Hall and water. There’s a small, faded New Testament in the center console. Chilton has written two self-published religious themed books.
There aren’t any wasps or other flying predator insects on this day, but Chilton knows where all the dogs are on his route. Pulling up to one house, he sees a rottweiler’s line has been changed – the dog used to not be able to reach the meter, now he can.
As Chilton approaches the meter, the dog barks but backs off. When he gets back in the truck, Chilton holds up the smallest device he carries. When pressed, it makes a high-pitched noise that is supposed to scare off animals.
“It doesn’t always work for all dogs, but it worked for him,” he said.
Chilton says he’s gotten good at avoiding fire ants, but also has to watch out for “canine landmines” of animals that are left in yards.
One day, the problem was a chicken.
“I went in a yard and this rooster was tied up by one leg,” Chilton said. “I’d heard of roosters ‘spurring’ you.”
Chilton got on his radio and called Johnson and asked “Will this thing spur me?”
Johnson replied, “I don’t know, I’m a city boy.”
“Well this is a city rooster!” Chilton said.
“They still talk about that day,” he joked.
The weather may also be a challenge, although on this day temperatures still were in the low 80s.
“You get used to the heat,” he said. “You just get out and walk and sweat.”
The cold rain is the worst, particularly if the house doesn’t have gutters. Sheets of rain fall on the readers because they have to get next to the house to do the read.
The biggest challenge on this day was obstructed meters. Someone had left the hood of a car propped up next to a house over a gas meter. Other water meters were obstructed by grass, dirt and other landscaping.
“That lady was nice,” Chilton said after checking the meter at one house. “She cut back her plant so I could get to the water meter.”
It’s the residents’ responsibility for keeping meters unobstructed so the city can read them. If Chilton runs into a problem, he puts a note in the computer that generates a letter to the resident to tell them to remove what’s in the way.