Considerations for Recycling Water Meter Batteries

Batteries are all around us, and we rely on their ability to hold power and recharge even when we don’t realize they’re doing it. The batteries found in water meters and other utility metering devices are a great example. Few people aside from those working at the utility companies know they are there unless something goes wrong. When there’s a battery issue, the water meter may fail to record the amount of water being used by the customer. In the worst-case scenario, the meter may shut off and fail to operate if its battery pack dies out. Of course, all batteries wear out over time. When it comes time for your utility provider to finally upgrade or at least replace all of the batteries in water meters across the city, make sure you’re handling those batteries correctly to avoid EPA and state fines.

Today’s Smart Meters

Decades ago, water meters were largely power-free devices that relied on mechanical methods of recording the volume of water used by a home or business. This had some benefits of simplicity and easy repairs, but it required manual checking to report accurate readings of water usage every single month. A trained professional had to physically drive and walk to each meter on every structure receiving water service. As populations grow in cities and counties across the country, it simply became unfeasible for water suppliers to hire and manage that number of “meter readers,” as they were colloquially known. That’s where the breakthrough of the smart water meter came in.

Adding a battery and some kind of radio or other transmission method allowed for a much faster method of getting accurate readings from the meters. Instead of a worker having to park as close as possible and then walk to the meter, a truck could simply drive around and pick up the readings via the signaling system. Early models could only transmit their signal a mile or two, requiring some manual reading in rural areas. Today’s smart meters can often transmit the reading all the way to a central recording system regardless of the distance, reducing the need for physical access on a monthly basis.

Smart water meters offer a number of benefits to the utility provider, including:

  • Reduction in labor costs and labor force numbers for manual meter readings
  • Less wear and tear on service vehicles
  • Only occasional repair is needed or battery replacement every 5 to 10 years
  • More accurate readings and less opportunity for fraud or alteration
  • Alerts if the meter is tampered with or offline due to damage
  • Easy tracking of customer usage over the months and years
  • Hard-to-dispute records since there is no human error capable during transmission
  • Better measurements of small levels of water use or occasional use by a seasonal facility.

But they also benefit the home or business owner as well. Buildings equipped with smart water meters:

  • Can often connect to apps to help track water usage as it occurs
  • May receive alerts from the utility company if your water usage goes up unusually, helping you locate leaks and other issues
  • Set up clear records of seasonal water use so you can make plans for future costs
  • Encourage greater savings on water use by helping you pinpoint when it’s used the most
  • Help you stay on top of water restrictions and gives you clear proof you didn’t violate any local regulations.

EPA Regulations

The only issue with smart water meters comes when it’s time to replace the battery inside of them. This is unavoidable as of yet because all of today’s battery technology has a limited lifespan due to the breakdown of the electrolytes inside each unit. While lithium-ion batteries can last a decade or more in these utility applications, they’ll eventually need replacement to keep the smart meter running smoothly. Many older smart meters with limited transmission range are also being swapped out completely for newer models that transmit data directly to the main servers for the utility company. In that case, the battery inside still needs proper handling and disposal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates the handling and recycling requirements for all of the batteries used in water meters and other utility meters through the Universal Waste Program and its related regulations.

In general, any material that is hazardous to human life or the environment is regulated in some way under this program. That includes all the commercial batteries used in water meters today. The exact EPA regulations related to your water meters will depend on the type of battery used inside it. Even some older models may require special handling during disposal if they contain any hazardous elements. State regulations can also vary, so you’ll need to work with a battery recycler that understands the specific rules affecting your utility company. Meeting EPA regulations but failing to follow more local waste-handling laws could lead to costly fines. You’ll need to send all hazardous materials to an EPA-approved waste handling facility, preferably to a company that achieves high recovery rates of valuable materials. Instead of trying to pick through the various regulations that might apply on both the federal and state level to your battery replacement project, let us handle the details here at Battery Recyclers of America.

Types of Batteries

Modern smart meters tend to rely most commonly on lithium-ion batteries. These batteries offer a longer lifespan than most older options because they can handle more charge and discharge cycles. However, they tend to need replacement anywhere from every 5 to 10 years, depending on the size, demand, and composition. Today’s batteries offer a longer lifespan for water meters and other smart meters, so upgrading now can put off problems with inaccuracy or disconnects for many years to come.

Single-cell batteries were commonly used in early smart meter models, but they tended to offer only enough power to operate radio frequency systems with relatively short transmission distances. Multi-cell lithium battery systems allow for greater range, much like with a cell phone’s transmission. These batteries also tend to last 10 years or more in real service conditions. Moving up from single cell to more dynamic lithium batteries can improve water meter performance and reduce the need for local collection of radio-transmitted data.

These meters need more than just batteries to transmit the data to track how much water is used at each connection. Circuit boards, wiring, and transmission equipment are all built in as well. These materials must be separated out when smart meters are replaced entirely and not just upgraded with new battery units. Advanced recycling programs will capture all of the valuable materials within each smart meter, sending them off for reuse as appropriate. Even the steel in the case of the water meter can be recaptured and returned to the material stream for new manufacturing.

Issues with Damaged Batteries

Once lithium batteries become damaged or reach the end of their lifespan, the water meter will begin to malfunction. If you’re noticing error issues with transmission from more than just a few meters per month, you may need to undertake a battery replacement campaign. Yet it’s not just the issues with data collecting that should drive battery replacement. If the batteries are allowed to degrade, they can leak hazardous fluids or overheat and damage the rest of the water meter. To avoid more costly and complex water meter replacement, it’s best to keep the battery changed out regularly and to at least check the battery for any sign of trouble with it.

Even once the water meter batteries are removed from the meters, they can be hazards while storing them for proper disposal. Leaks are always a potential issue with any battery relying on liquid catalysts, including lithium batteries commonly used in these meters. Another issue with lithium-ion batteries, in particular, is the potential for fire. Storing a number of damaged or aging batteries together in the same place, especially if they have more than 50% charge on them and the conditions are hot, can lead to explosions and fire. Prompt and direct recycling is the safest way to handle these batteries, especially if it’s hard to measure and track the exact amount of charge left in each one.

Don’t leave your water customers struggling with meters that aren’t sending out correct readings or that are limiting their use through outages. Replace the batteries routinely to keep the entire meter reporting system running as smoothly as possible for everyone.

Massive Replacement Campaigns

It’s best not to wait until customers are reporting issues or maintenance teams have to work on equipment more often than usual. Instead, aim to replace batteries through the water meter system a year or two before their expected end of operating life. This allows for the work to be completed in stages rather than all at once. When it’s time to upgrade the entire meter rather than just the battery, the volume and weight of the recycled material will be far greater. Make sure the recycling company you choose to partner with for this kind of project can handle the volume you’re producing.

Larger cities and highly populated counties may need to replace thousands of batteries within a relatively short time period. This has happened recently in Kingsport, TN, where the city had to replace tens of thousands of meter batteries within an 18-month period because of unexpected early failures. Despite expecting 20 years of performance from the meters without the need for battery replacement, the batteries began to fail around the 11-year mark. That’s a normal expected lifespan for most lithium batteries used in these meters. Preemptively replacing batteries at the decade mark on all smart water meters can prevent customer complaints due to measurement issues and the high costs of massive and fast-paced replacement campaigns.

Other issues can complicate the replacement of water battery meters, including:

  • The need to excavate to reach buried or concrete-encased meters
  • Inaccurate records of where all water meters are located
  • Fit issues between the replacement battery units and the spaces used by the old batteries
  • Handling and storage of the batteries before they’re sent off for recycling.

Pairing with a battery recycling company that guides you through the water meter replacement process will make everything go much smoother at the end at least.

The Need for Accurate Records

Water meters must produce accurate records, even if they’re designed to transmit data over long distances. Customers often check their bills regularly and will dispute any charges that don’t match their own records of usage over the month. One of the main causes of inaccurate reporting from a smart water meter is a damaged or dying battery unit. When it fails to provide enough power, transmission can fail or repeat data from a previous month. The error may be in the customer’s favor, making it harder for your utility company to turn a profit. Establishing an accurate record of customer water use works best when the batteries are kept updated so that the meters don’t stop reporting. It’s always possible to check the manual readings when the digital transmission method has failed, but this requires more labor on top of making the repairs. Keeping batteries replaced in the first place is a far better practice than trying to catch up on putting in new units once problems have emerged in record keeping.

Smart meters are a good choice for today’s most complex water management issues, such as submetering that’s required in California to pinpoint water misuse during drought restrictions. Yet if they’re going to be used, they must be maintained and renovated regularly to prevent issues after a decade or more of service.

When you’re ready to remove old batteries or entire smart water units, turn to us here at Battery Recyclers of America for assistance. We are experts in meeting all of the EPA’s many requirements for the safe handling and recycling of lithium batteries and many other types. No matter what kind of water meter you’re removing, we can help with the process by providing prompt pickup and sorting.

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