Wild Country Meter Reader

© 1996, Thomas G. Rampton

Blizzards, rain, hail, heat! Those horrible things can't stop the mail, and can't stop me either. Not for long, anyway. I read almost 400 electric meters, including my own, in a rural part of central Colorado between Buena Vista and Salida.

"Now this is Colorado!" proclaims the sign as you enter this area. I work for an electric co-op that provides electricity for most of this county, and parts of three others, all high in the Colorado Rockies. Not that there's an electric meter up there, but the area includes Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado.

There are almost 7200 meters in our service area. Eleven meter readers, some with routes almost double the size of mine, handle all this. Statewide, I'm one of many. Takes me three or four days in summer, a bit longer in winter.

This area is not like certain big cities. There must be meter readers somewhere who step over heaps of garbage and bodies of the recently stabbed, while breathing poison gases that came from exhaust pipes and industrial stacks.

Those are not problems up here. Meters I read are between 7760 and 8760 feet high. Evening shadows come from Mounts Princeton and Antero (both over 14,000 feet) about six miles west, near the continental divide. This is exciting country! I'm well aware that I live and work where others take vacations.

Why do I do this? It adds a little money to the pot, though my daily pay is about half what I used to get for teaching high school chemistry. The mileage payment certainly covers gasoline and goes toward increased brake, clutch, and transmission work. But I have reasons besides the money.

Physical exercise: I'm a retiree and a writer. I could sit around and gain weight, or get out and do things. I often walk where I could drive. I did a portion of the route on my mountain bike once this past summer, where a group of houses is fairly close together. It felt much better than getting in and out of my car all those times. This sort of driving is bad for my car, while walking (or bicycling) is good for my body.

The appropriate car, snow tires, and chains: I was advised to have four-wheel drive for this job, but I didn't. Job economics don't promote such a purchase. Over the years I've learned I can make it into many places by being careful, yet aggressive, and using my car's momentum.

Sometimes I won't drive in anyway. One group of houses is down a steep hill, and if it's icy I'm not going to risk not getting out again. I've just walked in.

Note: I recently bought a 4WD vehicle, though I did without for two years.

I slid off a snow packed road last winter. I'd slowed to decide whether I wanted to turn into a certain driveway and the car began to move sideways, studded snow tires and all, on the slanted surface. There wasn't a thing I could do about it! Firmly stuck in the ditch, I couldn't get out. Trying made it worse. Well, I could have used 4WD then!

I'm into amateur radio (call is NØUFQ) and was soon in contact with friends. Two hams came with a four-wheel drive vehicle, attached a rope, and pulled me out rather easily. It would have been a long walk home, and I really didn't want that much exercise!

If you think you need snow tires, my experience is that you really need chains. I put mine on the next day, and drove around with impunity. No problem!

I've learned my own neighborhood: I've lived in this valley over twenty years, but there were spots I hadn't known about. Some houses are up on the sides of mountains or down in wooded dells. One place has a driveway well over a mile long. Another is on the far side of three canyons. Electric meters around here tend to be widely separated. When I started, the problem was first to find the house (some are way back) and then find the meter, but now I know the territory much better.

There is a large, well-known, open-to-the-public hot springs pool in my area, and a number of nearby houses have "hot basements" and hot water right from their wells. Heat remains, at depth, from volcanic activity about forty million years ago. Traversing the several faults, hot water comes to the surface.

One house has a hot well in the yard, and water runs continually through a hose to a tub in the trees. Can I refrain from sticking my hand in as I walk by every month? Strength, please!

The great horse race, won by me: I'd gone across a field and through a gate to a rural house. Going back out, I opened the gate and was about to drive through. But some horses, having seen opportunity, were approaching fast! I wasn't going to be responsible for loose horses, and got the gate closed just in time. But my car and I were still inside the fence. I needed an idea, and it came.

A dirt road went down my side of the fence a ways, and these horses wanted attention. I drove along the fence and got out. Quick of body but not of mind, they followed. Not wanting them to feel tricked, I rubbed a few big noses then drove quickly back to the gate, went through, shut it, and resumed my duties.

Incidentally, there's a general rule about gates, the violation of which results in bitterness: Leave them as you find them, either open or closed.

Bison: (buffalo) live at one ranch I visit. Sometimes I see the herd. Other times they are off in the woods, at secret places of their choosing. One time, they were right on the road I use. Cattle will move off when a car approaches, but bison stand their ground! They finally moved a little. Gigantic, shaggy faces regarded me balefully from inches away as I crept past.

Can ever a member of that species be called cute? Once, the herd was down near the main gate and new little bison were among them. Yes, certain bison are cute! Just as this calf is cute.

Cur-like dogs: When I started, the electric company gave me some anti-dog spray which I have yet to use. There are a couple places where I put it in my shirt pocket, and at one house I keep it aimed at the resident dog all the time I'm out of my car.

That dog lunges at me; barking, growling, snarling, curling his evil lips, and showing teeth. But I have made two discoveries: One is that speaking pleasantly to a barking dog (but not this one) can have a positive effect. Then I go about my business resolutely. The other (which works here) is that unfriendly dogs often charge if I turn my back, but leap away again if I face them. I can walk backwards if need be.

I won't get out of my car at one place because of the dog. The first month I read meters, that dog had his teeth around my calf but didn't bite. Maybe he never does, but I'm not going to find out. There are two meters in there that I can read from inside my car, and that's what I do.

At another place, a huge dog inside a fence leaps up, inches from my ear as I read the meter, and makes assorted loud threats. Another large dog is chained out back, claims to be vicious, and I hope he never gets loose.

Solitude: I seldom meet the people whose meters I read. I don't know what most of them look like, what they do, or what they're interested in. I only know where their electric meters are! Names and account numbers are in the book I use, but like an air traffic controller who doesn't remember aircraft that have landed, I often don't remember specifics once I'm gone. All customers I've met have been very pleasant, but generally it's a solitary job. That's fine with me.

Errors: Suppose I misread a meter? I've done that, but readings are checked by a computer upon being keyed in. The program considers recent usage recently, and usage from the same month a year earlier. Nobody will get a $9000 household electric bill because I wrote down a wrong number.

Usage at one place was particularly high one month. I was accused of misreading it, but it was just as high the next month. I reported it to the electric company, hoping to save trouble for the local fire department.

Anger, body heat, and bills: Sometimes a customer arrives at the electric company, one hand clenched into a fist and the other holding his bill. His statement and question: "We were gone for two weeks at Christmas, and look at this! Just look! Our bill is higher than if we'd been home. Can't you guys do anything right?"

Well, they probably have electric heat. A certain amount of heat is contributed to a house by the occupants. It comes from the grocery store as food, biochemically converted to heat. Cooking contributes heat to the house too, and it might normally come from gas. In addition, when the people got home, they probably did a couple loads of laundry. Does the hot water heater use electricity? Conclusion: Energy usage isn't so simple as we might think. Many factors enter in, and it isn't just whether the lights and TV were off.

When I taught, the school building would sometimes be cold in the morning. But students arrived, each like a small furnace, and the place warmed considerably. I've heard of schools that are heated almost entirely by body heat. Houses, to a lesser extent, work that way too.

Some people are just naturally suspicious. The electric company is "out to get 'em," as is nearly every other organization. What a way to live! Well, it's the duty of the electric company to explain matters of usage and billing, and the one I work for goes far out of it's way to do this. But after that, it's the customer's problem.

Snowbirds: These are people who live here during the fair months, but who head south for the winter. I happen to enjoy violent weather and the changing of seasons. By leaving, I'd miss an essential part of reality, but lots of customers feel otherwise. If nobody has gone into a place recently (say there's a big snowdrift across the driveway) why should I? The company is very good about this. Lots of places in these parts are occupied seasonally or occasionally. Electric bills can often be estimated by the computer.

I don't perform many computations while reading meters. But I do notice that some households use very little electricity, perhaps 250 kilowatt-hours, while others use well over 2000. I don't know why this is. There may be good reason, or maybe it's just "Ah, we can afford it" waste.

Who is that guy? "Hey! Who's out behind the house? What's he doing? Where's my gun...? Oh, it's just him again." I've probably been almost shot lots of times, but I'll chance it if odds are in my favor. A law making it easier to shoot intruders was considered briefly by the state of Colorado and denounced by opponents as a "shoot the meter reader law."

I routinely violate "no trespassing" signs and walk around houses as if I owned them, but I do try to park so my magnetic "meter reader" sign is visible. Perhaps people will read first and shoot later.

I'll be over this eventually: Somebody has to do this job, though there are machines that read meters automatically. One attaches to your phone line and calls in the reading at, say, three o'clock in the morning once a month. Realize, however, that just one such device probably costs more than I get to read the whole route. Economically, I'm a better deal though I'm a real anachronism. Imagine! Driving around reading these meters in person, and writing down the numbers, when all sorts of data communication exist!

One way or another, this experience will end. Oh well. The world moves on.

August of 1999--The electric company was rapidly installing "turtle meters" which read themselves by transmitting over the electric lines to a receiver at the substation. So I wouldn't be doing this job much longer, but that was fine!

Note: After February of 2000, I was done with meter-reading. The company had installed turtle meters throughout my route, though they had a way to go to complete the whole system. I encouraged them to finish mine at an early time, because I was busy with new projects. And they did.

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