A Flood of Interest in Reading Meters : Drought: The impending water cutbacks are spurring many customers into checking their home use, the DWP says. But with all those confusing little dials, it’s a task easier thought about than done.


Has the drought made you think about checking your own water meter to monitor household use?

Think again.

“It’s a little bit complicated,” warns Judy C. Clark, field training coordinator for the Department of Water & Power. She was one of seven DWP staffers who gathered last week at the department’s West Los Angeles office to help explain how to read a water meter. Others included three field trainers (experienced water-meter readers), two executives and a public relations representative.

Interest in reading water meters is raging among DWP’s 650,000 customers. With the city’s tough water cutbacks going into effect Friday, calls are flooding the DWP Hotline, (800) 722-1122 or (213) 481-5800.


“There is a mood of desperation,” says one hot line spokesman. “Customers who never even looked at their water bills now want to know everything--how they can monitor water use, how they can cut back, how they can read the meter.”

Explain meter-reading on the telephone?

Not likely.

Visitors at last week’s briefing discovered quickly that water meters are not user-friendly. Assembled on the table were assorted sample meters with faces that looked like defiant clocks. They had six little dials, each numbered from 0 to 9, each with a single pointer hand. The dials measure cubic feet and range in values from one to 100,000.

So this is what a residential water meter looks like?

Not always. This is not a world of absolutes.

Some models have more dials; meters range from six to 10 dials, explains field trainer David Calderon: “Even residential water meters are not all alike. . . . It depends on the size of the service and the meter manufacturer. The brands and styles change over the years.”

Not to mention, of course, “Speedo.” That’s the nickname for a new meter that looks like an odometer. It simplifies reading by displaying current water usage in a digital readout. Meter readers, Clark says, love it.


But most residential meters are still the six-dial model.

And the first chore for the home reader is to find it. Unlike the electricity meter, which perches on the side of the house, most water meters are buried somewhere, located where the residential line is hooked into the DWP system. They are housed in a plastic or concrete box. Their lids are flush with the ground.

Is the meter always buried in the same place? A collective DWP laugh.

Normally, says field trainer Tamiko Y. Henry, the residential meter is located in the parkway strip between a curb and sidewalk. “But, say we can’t locate it on that; we look for other likely places.”


This might be a patch in the street, a letter T etched in the concrete or any grassy area. If the house is sitting on a hill, the meter might be located far below, on another street. Sometimes it is in an alley. Sometimes a car is parked over it. If you can’t find the meter, ask DWP for directions ((800) DIAL DWP).

And it helps if you are strong, agile and have good vision, say field trainers, adding a check-list of cautions:

* Be careful. The dark, damp home of the water meter is much favored by black widow spiders, gophers and snakes. Perhaps you will want to open the lid with a stick, says Clark. “We often use a meter hook.”

* After that lid, you have to open the hinged dust-cap, which must be replaced after the reading.


* The outside lid, which may be heavy iron or metal, also must be replaced and may be difficult to relock into place.

Now the actual home meter reading can begin.

“You have to concentrate,” cautioned Calderon, spelling out the sequence:

Ignore the three dials whose hands measure 1, 10 and 100 cubic feet. These are test hands. The others, which begin with the 1,000 cubic-foot-value dial, are billing hands. The test hands may be in black with the billing hands in red, but that is not always the case because of an aging factor. Sometimes the paint has peeled off or the red has faded.


Looking at the billing hands, you read, and record, from right to left. Think of it as doing everything backward.

From each dial, write down the number the billing hand is directly on or has last passed. At this point you will probably notice, as you are reading circles from right to left, that the numbers within the circles (0 to 9) are arranged in alternating clockwise and counterclockwise sequence. Just accept this fact.

If you write the numbers from right to left, the result is your meter reading. But it has to be translated. Residential water use is measured in hundred cubic feet (HCF) units. (Why isn’t water use measured in gallons? “Because we’ve historically had meters that measure in cubic feet,” replied a spokesman for DWP’s Water Operating Section.)

Each HCF unit is the equivalent of 748 gallons of water. So if you read the meter correctly and the number is 276, that translates as 206,448 gallons of water.


But that too is meaningless alone. To get a comparison, wait two months and read the meter again. Perhaps it reads 312. That means over your two-month billing period, your household used 36 HCFs (by subtracting 276 from 312) or 26,928 gallons during a 60-day period. That’s 449 gallons a day.

By now, the realization that you can get the same figure just by looking at the lower right-hand corner of your bimonthly water bill may be very comforting. And the do-it-yourselfer begins to appreciate the four-week training required of a DWP meter reader.

“They do have a difficult job,” says Charles E. Bernard, DWP commercial division manager. “You really can’t just look at the meter and know what is happening. It requires some guidance. These people read an average of 452 meters a day, and their accuracy rate is 0.5 errors per 1,000 meters read, or one error per 2,000 meters. That’s phenomenal.”

Nevertheless, DWP meter readers are often accused of making mistakes, he says, which might be traced to leaky home plumbing. Often it means that customers don’t have any idea how much water they use.


For these reasons, DWP encourages residential meter-reading, despite its pitfalls. “In a drought situation, it can be a valuable tool,” says F. Rennie Powell, DWP assistant commercial director. “It gives you the ability to monitor household water use by the week.”

But despite DWP’s official encouragement, the field trainers acknowledged that the chore is not for the faint-hearted.

“Lots of customers ask me to show them how,” said trainer Arleen Bowles as the briefing broke up. “But after I start to explain, they interrupt and say, ‘Well, never mind. Maybe you can just show me how to cut the water off in case of an earthquake, instead. . . .’ ”