Endless driving, parking and peering at tiny numbers make reading utility meters a repetitious task. Add fumes from an idling engine and the back-wrenching calisthenics of climbing in and out of a truck, and the task can take its toll on workers’ health. Every month, Bill Albrecht, Director of Public Works for the City of Buellton, sends out three employees at a time to read the city’s 1500 meters. Having seen the deleterious effects of the job first hand, he sought a solution to the wear and tear on his team.
“As the crew got older” Albrecht says, “I didn’t want to have to hire younger people just to do that type of physical thing. Anything that can save a back or some physical pain just makes good sense to me.”
John Sanchez, a long time employee of Buellton’s Public Works, has been reading meters for 25 years. He describes one particularly demanding route that spans the entire town and features meters located up to a mile apart.
“We call it the driving meterbook,” Sanchez says, “because one guy drives and the other guy jumps out and reads the meter. It’s seven or eight miles long and spread out over every corner of town. You can’t really do it walking.”
While attending a local fundraiser last April, Sanchez spotted an intriguing auction item: a foldable, three-wheeled vehicle with cambered suspension and an electric hub motor. Called a Trikke Tribred Pon-E, it looked like the perfect transportation tool for a meter reader.
Representatives of Trikke, an international company headquartered in Buellton, offered Sanchez a trial run on the Tribred. Convinced that the speed and stability of the lightweight machine would streamline his job, he took the idea to his boss, who instantly recognized its potential.
“Being a small city in a rural area,” Albrecht smiles, “we usually aren’t innovators. But because of the uniqueness of the unit being headquartered in our town, we had to be the instigator on this one.
“We tried it out,” he continues. “We wanted to prove it, try it in all types of conditions and on a long term basis, to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Within a month, the Trikke Tribred surpassed expectations with its efficiency, ease of use and low impact, both on air quality and the rider’s body. Sanchez found he could ride seven or more hours and travel a half-dozen miles, all on seven cents worth of electricity and with minimum physical fatigue.
Described as a “carving vehicle,” the Trikke can be run on a lithium battery or via human power by leaning side to side into the forward motion, much like a surfer cutting through a wave. It features a twist throttle, dual rear disc brakes and motorcycle-grade tires, and can travel 20 miles at up to 18 miles per hour on a single charge.
“The first time I used it on the driving book,” Sanchez remembers, “I reduced the man-hours by 100%, because I did it with one guy. I don’t have to use any gas, I don’t have to use an extra guy and I can ride right up to the meter.
“Going up hills,” he explains, “you kind of lean back and forth to make it an easier run, but coming downhill you just coast. It’s like being on an escalator. You just step on it and ride to the next meter, maybe give it a bump on the throttle, but sometimes I just push and go.” Albrecht praises the Trikke Tribred as a time, back and energy saver that cost little more than the price of a few tanks of gas or set of tires for one of the department’s trucks.
The unit has garnered support from city officials and delighted smiles from members of the public.
“If we’d done this a few years ago,” Albrecht muses, “it might not have been as well accepted, but everything now revolves around being green and conserving energy, so the timing was perfect.
“And it’s not noisy,” he adds, “so there’s nothing much to complain about, except maybe that John makes it look like too much fun.”
Trikke advertises its vehicles—which include electric and human-powered models, as well as one designed for gliding down ski slopes—as built for “fun and fitness.” Thanks to the imaginative staff at Buellton’s Public Works, promoters can now add “reading meters” to the machine’s applications.
“I really can’t say enough good things about the unit,” Albrecht says. “I’m just glad John suggested it. The big cities usually figure these things out before we do,” he adds with a grin, “but this time they actually may follow us.”