Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 28, 1994
Time is running out for PECO meter readers

Ralph Antonelli, a meter reader for Peco Energy Co., walked his route the other day on a narrow South Philadelphia street as a swirling wind carried off leaves, trash and a mournful Patsy Cline ballad that drifted from a rowhouse.

"Electric!" Antonelli, 30, bellowed in a stadium vendor's voice as he knocked at a house on Sigel Street. "Meter man!"

"Good morning, Love!" he said to an older woman in a faded housedress who struggled with the latch. "Whazza matter? You all right? Take your time."

In five years of making the rounds through the city's alleys and basements, Antonelli has seen it all - raging pit bulls, gunfights, hostile drug dealers, animal carcasses, fleas, rats, roaches and skimpy lingerie. Not to mention the ordinary grumpy electric customer who wants to discuss last month's bill.

But most of the customers Antonelli meets elicit the same cheerful response from the South Philadelphia native. "Have a good one," he said brightly to a woman after splashing through her flooded basement, which stank of mothballs and kerosene.

"This is a good job for somebody with my personality," said Antonelli, who once received Peco's Good Neighbor award for recovering a cash-filled wallet from the gutter. "I like being out on the street, talking to people."

Antonelli's days on the street are numbered, however. The meter reader is about to become as anachronistic as the milkman and the Linotype operator.

In the next few years, Peco will replace its field representatives, the technical name for meter readers, with automatic microprocessors and radio transmitters.

"The writing's been on the wall for a while that this job is going to be phased out," said Antonelli, who hopes to land another job with Peco.

Peco has been anticipating the advent of the automatic devices. It stopped hiring meter readers several years ago and is gradually shifting the work to contract employees. Now, only about half of Peco's 350 field representatives are directly employed by the utility. The top pay is $15.40 an hour, Antonelli said.

The utility plans to replace its human meter readers over the next three to five years, said Corbin A. McNeill Jr., Peco's president.

Peco has yet to decide whether the utility or a contractor will own and install the automated system, which McNeill said would cost up to $250 million. But he said that Peco has already decided which technology it will use - a wireless system that will allow it to read a meter instantly from a central office.

Peco thus would join other local utilities that are rapidly installing the automatic devices, rendering the leather-shod meter reader a mere pedestrian on the information superhighway.

Philadelphia Suburban Water Co. has a system that uses telephone lines to transmit meter data. Philadelphia Gas Works is installing radio devices that beam the readings to a passing vehicle.

Peco, which has experimented in South Philadelphia with automatic devices that transmit data over the utility's power lines, is convinced that the systems are worth the price.

It now costs Peco about 75 cents a month to read each meter - that's $13.5 million a year for the utility's 1.5 million customers. One vendor of automatic readers says it can do the job for about 65 cents a reading, McNeill said.

The savings are nominal, but utilities say the automatic devices can also improve customer satisfaction. The devices eliminate the need for Peco to estimate energy use by the 20 percent of customers whose indoor meters are inaccessible each month. Customers are less likely to dispute, and more likely to pay, an accurate bill.

In addition, the automatic devices would rid the utility of the need to obtain a physical reading once a year, which is now required by the state Public Utility Commission.

The technology that Peco will use can take readings as frequently as every five minutes, allowing the utility to offer time-of-day rates so that customers can save by curtailing their energy consumption during peak periods.

The new system will also contain enough extra communication capacity so that Peco can read meters for other utilities. Peco might even use the capacity to offer non-utility services, such as monitoring home security systems or tracking inventories in vending machines.

But one thing the new device can't do is what Antonelli does best - provide a smiling emissary for the electric company.

"There's almost a social element to that visit," McNeill acknowledged. "That's one of the negatives of the automatic meter readings. But we're finding in the business environment today, and the competitive pressures we're under, that we have to look at all alternatives."

Antonelli's supervisor, Eileen MacCormac, agreed.

"I think if you ask most customers what they'd like, a personal visit or a lower bill, I think you'd find that most people want the lower bill," she said.

MacCormac knows the street well. Before she supervised the meter readers in South and West Philadelphia, she read meters herself. So did her father. Some elderly customers still insist on calling her each month to personally give her their readings.

But she has also seen conditions get worse for meter readers. One meter reader recently plunged through a dilapidated porch. Sometimes they get mugged. Dog bites are routine. Meter readers go into the field armed only with pepper spray and flea repellent.

Work conditions became a bit more dangerous this year after Peco changed its name from Philadelphia Electric Co. and got rid of its old, green uniforms. Meter readers say the new, blue uniforms, along with the hand-held computers that can be confused for walkie-talkies, make them look like police.

"They should have just put a big target on the back of my shirt," said Bob Strickland, a nine-year veteran who once got a gun stuck in his face by a homeowner who mistook him for a burglar. "People think you're a cop, and all you can do is shout, 'Electric! Electric!' "

"There's always danger out here," Antonelli said. "You always have it in the back of your mind."

The day before Thanksgiving, Antonelli walked his route through an ethnically diverse neighborhood near Fourth and Mifflin Streets. It wasn't the worst area, the kind where meter readers work in teams to back up each other. Nor was it affluent Center City, where the customers are notoriously uncooperative. "They can't be bothered with the meter reader," Antonelli said.

Some houses were spotless. Others were filled with choking aromas and glaring customers.

At one house, a lad of perhaps 7 answered the door. "Mom home?" Antonelli inquired. "Dad home? Any adult home?" The boy shook his head, eyes blinking.

"All right. Shut the door. Give this to your mom," Antonelli said, handing the child a card that advises customers to call in their reading.

"You see that all the time," he said, shaking his head. Meter readers are instructed not to enter a house where no adult is present.

Some streets are comfortably predictable, like old reruns on television. The dialogue is almost scripted.

"At this house, the guy will answer the door and say, 'Let me put the dog out,' " Antonelli said.

Sure enough, the man said just that.

A few houses down, Antonelli encountered a skeptical customer looking down from the second floor. "La Luz!" he sang out. "I know she's Spanish."

A few doors farther down, Antonelli approached a bar at Fourth and Moore Streets. "The guy who owns this bar will talk to me only in his native language, but somehow we understand each other," he said.

True to his word, Antonelli greeted the old man, who limped slowly and pointed to his knee, complaining in Portuguese.

A few houses away, Antonelli stopped to chat with Elaine Weisbraut, a flirtatious 85-year-old.

"Howya doing, hon?" he asked.

"I'm alive," said a beaming Weisbraut, who said she was preparing to go for her daily swim at the YMHA.

Antonelli read the meter. Weisbraut asked him for a date. She pinched his cheek.

"I never seen such a beautiful face," she said.

"See?" said Antonelli, walking to the next house. "That's the sort of thing I'm going to miss, being in touch with people." home page   
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