Westerville residents still will be able to avoid upgrading to "smart meters" for their city water and electricity service, but soon they'll need to "opt out" rather than requesting the meters.

Westerville residents still will be able to avoid upgrading to "smart meters" for their city water and electricity service, but soon they'll need to "opt out" rather than requesting the meters.

The new meters are designed to communicate with customers and service departments alike, and can monitor electric and water usage in real-time, as well as detect outages, leaks and other issues. They also avoid the necessity of sending city workers to residences and businesses to read the meters.

The smart meters have been put into use in the city's commercial corridors and to residents who "opted in" to the city's Advanced Metering Initiative program since 2012. And in the program's slow rollout, Electric Utility Manager Andy Boatright said the city is already seeing benefits of the meters.

"The system has been operable for a good year or year and a half," Boatright said. "So we have more than a year of data. The reads are coming through wonderfully and the data is coming in well. It's been able to provide the necessary reads for billing and has been essentially transparent to the customer.

"One advantage with the slower implementation has been that we've been able to shake it down and fix bugs along the way before widespread implementation."

Within the next few weeks -- exact dates are uncertain -- some residents will begin receiving postcard notifications that the city will replace old utility meters with with the new meters.

Residents who want to opt out of the program can do so by calling the Westerville Electric Division at 614-901-6700 when they receive the cards.

Boatright said about 12,000 customers are scheduled to receive new units over the program's next four years.

A vocal group of residents convinced City Council to not mandate adoption of the new technology in 2010-11. The city turned down a $4.3 million federal stimulus grant that would have paid for half of the new residential water and electricity meters.

Those opposed to them expressed concerns over privacy, potential hacking, government-dictated utility use and rate hikes being used to force compliance with city use preferences.

Boatright said the city is now certain the meters present no issues with hacking or other breaches.

"That's a key component of this process: The data is secure," he said. "There are substantial cybersecurity features that are in place on this system that protect against hacking and that sort of thing."

Boatright also shot down the idea that the department plans to raise rates for peak hours (2 to 7 p.m.). If rates were to change by the hour, he said, it would likely be geared toward commercial users and would certainly be an optional plan.

"We can study and take a look at a time-based rate, at least for the commercial sector," he said. "It's something that we could have available, but would not mandate by any means. I don't see that being necessary for the foreseeable future."

But those assurances haven't allayed all residents' concerns in the past. That's why the city will still allow residents to opt out of having the meters at their houses, as long as the older meter technology is available.

Westerville City Council Chairman Craig Treneff, who has a smart meter at his own home and business, said some residents simply won't be convinced of the new meters' merits.

"It's never been about invasion of privacy, and it doesn't allow that anyway," he said. "But people will believe what they choose to believe. No one is forced into it. They don't have to have one if they don't want one.

"But at some point in the future they'll have to, simply because we won't be able to buy the old replacement meters. But for the time being we can let people get used to them and see that they're not that scary."