THIS WEEK, a Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans contractor in a neon-green vest quietly made his way through a block of Mid-City, lifting the round metal disks out of front sidewalks and yards to install new “smart” water meters.

But as he left, one thing was missing: the water-meter covers embossed with a crescent-moon and stars. 

The old cast-iron meter covers were replaced with plain lids that read “water” on the flat surface. Like a sunnyside-up egg frying in a pan, a small rounded piece sticks up above the flat cover. The bulging egg is the top of an antenna.

If the smart meters work as planned, automatic, remote transmission of usage data from those little antennas could resolve the agency’s notorious inflated bills, by eliminating the need for in-person visits to all of its 140,000 meters by Sewerage and Water Board meter readers and detecting leaks in near real-time. 

In Jackson, Mississippi, which installed smart meters made by a different manufacturer, the rollout went so badly that the city is now suing for $450 million, for meters that do not work. Locally, in New Orleans, some advocates still have high hopes that the meters could modernize one element of the city’s antiquated water system. Or the SWB touts, “Smart meters will fix problems caused by the age of our water distribution system.”

Before the smart meters arrive at new blocks, residents should receive a letter and door hanger alerting them to the installation before it occurs, as well as instructions to flush household water lines after the installation, in case any particles, including lead from old lines, is knocked loose in the process.

Once the mini-antennas are installed citywide, the Sewerage & Water Board predicts a sea change: “The end of most surprise high bills, errors, and routine estimations caused by manual reads,” the agency’s website reads.

While some of the new “smart” water meters are unadorned (right), a Sewerage and Water Board spokeswoman said that a more traditional crescent-and-star version will also be installed, replacing many of the plainer discs (left) that had been installed in the city since the 1970s. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

TO SOME PRESERVATIONISTS, the shift represents a seismic change to the city’s streetscape. A century ago, in 1921, Edwin Ford of the Ford Meter Box Company created the well-known, iconic crescent star design, as the top of a water-meter box specially designed to meet the city’s needs. Its cast-iron lid kept out the city’s creatures and holes in the bottom to allow water to drain. The company eventually gave full design rights to the city utility, which licenses use of the lid’s popular image -– specifically protected in state law — to t-shirt makers and others. The cast-iron discs became so popular that they were targeted by thieves, to the point that the city opted to make a crop of more plain covers starting in 1971.

But the new antennas can’t transmit through cast iron. And drilling through every lid to insert the egg-shaped antennas was not feasible, SWB spokeswoman Grace Birch wrote in an email that noted that the agency is “retaining the crescent lids that are not being utilized in the field” and will be asking for public input on how to best use them, to “have the most impact for generations to come.”

Still, the SWB has commissioned smart meters that do use the traditional crescent design and incorporate the egg-shaped antennae. Some local meters in undisclosed locations will be replaced with those; others will be the unadorned versions seen in Mid-City this week.

At a meeting in August, during an employee demonstration of the new Sensus smart meters, board members were shown one of the revised crescent-and-stars covers. Those new lids, preserving the iconic style, will begin to be installed in coming weeks, Birch said. 

Given the city’s well-known street flooding, powered by the frail turbines that were installed around the time that the meter covers were designed, the device’s warning label – attached to the wired box connected to the antenna – seemed a little worrisome.  “Fire, Explosion, and Severe Burn Hazard,” it read. “Do Not Recharge, Disassemble, Heat Above 100C, Incinerate Or Expose Contents to Water.”

Residents shouldn’t be concerned, Birch wrote. “The meters are hermetically sealed and designed to be submerged inside meter boxes,” she said. “There is no safety concern for residents.”

In some cases, the agency is finding ways to reduce overall costs by drilling through cast iron, to retrofit existing lids, Birch said. Those lids, with the raised-egg inserts, would not be used for sidewalks or driveways, but will be placed in “dirt-and-grass applications,” areas that presumably would not need to be accessible to wheelchairs and meet other ADA-compliant standards. 

But in Mid-City, no matter if the surface was grass or dirt or concrete, the meter covers were universally plain discs.

Neighbor Danielle Maurin found the new covers ugly and a “trip hazard,” because of the egg bulging out of the lid’s otherwise-flat surface. Another resident sighed at the disappearance of the crescent-and-stars design in front of the doors in Mid-City. “It’s a sad thing to lose,” she said, especially because it would seem so easy to order enough distinctive crescent covers for the entire city.

But Birch counseled that, beyond the blocks that got plainer lids, the bigger picture is optimistic. Since the 1970s, many lids had already been replaced with the deliberately plain, ho-hum cast-iron lids that read, simply, “WATER.” Because of that, the smart-water installations will actually increase the proportion of crescent lids, she said.

“Currently, about one in five of our customers have our iconic SWBNO crescent lid,” she wrote. “As we complete our smart meter program, we will increase that number to about one in three with the newly-designed crescent lids.”

Freelance reporter Madeline Aruffo contributed to this story. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...