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Tales of the meter reader

June 15, 2008
By RON LARSEN, Journal Staff Writer
NEW ULM — Automation of utility meters for remote reading, as is happening at New Ulm Public Utilities, is closing the door on a period in the utility’s history when meter readers literally risked injury in getting the job done.

No one knows that better than NUPU’s meter chief, Bill Petersen, who has been around meters for 28 years, and fellow NUPU employee Leon Portner who has been reading meters for 32 years.

“Meter reading is like everything else. It has changed over the years. Right now, it’s all about use of technology, and it is more data collection than meter reading. In the past, it was a very physical job, and, in a sense, it was more of a customer service-oriented job,” said Petersen.

“With elderly people and like that, we’d perform a lot of duties for them. We were basically the only ones who went in their basements. If there was things we could help them out with, we would.” Like “find a leak,” said Portner.

“A lady used to have us check the cistern, check this and check that because no one went in the basement, but as people’s lifestyles have changed, we changed with them. It’s not a manual process like it was,” Petersen said.

“One of the things you lose through the years is that direct customer contact which can be good and bad, depending on your attitude. If you like people and can get along, it’s a very good thing. It was a job that if you enjoyed the outdoors, enjoyed people, you could have a lot of fun,” said Petersen.

“There’s an old lady that we used to do chores for when we came out,” said Portner.

But, that’s the rosy side of meter reading in those days. Now, you will see the flip side of the coin when meter readers could be forgiven for wanting combat pay.

Ask what the major problem was, and you get a quick reply.

“Dog bites,” says Petersen.

“Yeah, dog bites,” Portner echoes. “I don’t know how many, but I think I got it about three times, four times, something like that. You ever get bit?”

“A few times. I’ve got these scars,” Petersen replies, pulling up his sleeve.

“Well, you soon learn just like people you can read dogs, and you can usually tell, sometimes you’re surprised, too. When a dog attacks you, there’s really no time for [Mace, pepper spray] or anything else. Your only protection is what’s in your hands, and the books or the hand-helds [for recording meter readings] are what we have in our hands. So, the best thing you can do is hold it out there and hope it chews on that and not you. Sometimes that didn’t happen, either,” Petersen said.

(At which point, Portner picks up the hand-held reading recorder he has in front of him and points to the bite marks above the keypad on the recorder.)

“So, that’s how they got all the dog bites. Postmen are kind of like that, too. They learn that it’s usually the mailbag that gets it instead of them. But, carrying Mace or things like that when a dog actually attacks, by the time you pull the Mace out, the dog has already got you,” Petersen explained.

Fortunately, most of the dog incidents were more of a nuisance than a big threat to the meter readers.

“[I was bitten] only once severely. A lot of them were what we used to call ankle-biters. The little yappy dogs. There was one lady that kept telling me her dog didn’t bite [while] it was hanging from my leg [while he’s trying to read her meters], and we’re both in the same room. The dog had teeth in my ankle, and she kept saying, ‘Oh, he doesn’t bite, he doesn’t bite.’ So, finally, I told her what do you think is underneath my sock?”said Petersen.

However, Portner will testify that it’s not only dogs the meter readers had to look out for.

“A boar pig got me one time out by a place here in town, too. We had to go down an aisle to read the meter at the end, and the pig was running back and forth. One time, he came close and just notched his head over and put my knee against a partition. [A sore knee for a short time was the only damage.] That one [story] spread through the city pretty quick,” Portner recalled.

“There’s some wild cats around town that really caused you trouble. Some birds, once in a while. There’s more than just dogs that got you sometimes,” said Portner.

Oddly enough, perhaps, it wasn’t dog bites, wild cats, birds or pig encounters that had Petersen’s meter-reading department leading all other NUPU departments in Workers’ Compensation claims.

“No, most of it was because of the weather, mainly in the winter, mostly falls. Up on the hill [west part of town], for example, was the worst area to read meters. Everyone thought it was the best area, but, for us, that’s where everybody got hurt,” Petersen said.

“That’s where the outside meters started, and, up there, it’s all oversized lots. There were no sidewalks at the time, no alleys, and you had to get into everyone’s backyard. So, we were the only ones who were ever in those backyards all winter, going through that snow and [dealing with] window wells. You wouldn’t see the window wells because they were covered with snow, and you might fall down into the window well, that sort of thing. Yes, those type areas where the terrain was like that [a ski slope in the back], you had to somehow get up and down that in the wintertime,” Petersen said.

However, as far as Portner is concerned, there was a much bigger challenge.

“Snow drifts. Drifts were in the backyard, and you had to negotiate the drifts. Get stuck in the drifts, and you had to lay down and roll over until you could stand back up again because you were stuck,” Portner said.

“If it rained, you had a layer of ice on top of the snow, and every time you stepped in the snow, you’d just bruise your shin up like crazy. Sometimes, you’d tape on some cardboard so it wouldn’t hurt your shins when you’re walking through the ice-crusted snow. That irritates.”

Although the temptation to estimate the readings might be great because of the weather or other factors, Petersen said it was rarely done.

“Actually, believe it or not, all through the years, we had to read every meter we could get to. Sometimes, we leaned too far the other way (in requiring meters be read), and people were at risk sometimes in trying to read the meters.”

Ron Larsen can be reached at rlarsen@nujournal.com

Article Photos

Photo by Steve Muscatello
New Ulm Public Utilities employee Leon Portner (left) hold a log book that meter readers used to carry to record information. NUPU meter chief Bill Petersen holds the hand held unit and next to him is the laptop now used to record the meter information.

 
 

 

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