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