It might be difficult to find someone out there whose knowledge of Clark County roads trumps Joe Cryblskey’s.
The 15-year employee of Clark Public Utilities knows just about all of them — even the private driveways and dead ends.
“Some people get annoyed — I’ll have people meet me at my house. They’re like, OK let’s drive over here. I’ll beat them by like 10 minutes, and they’re like, ‘How’d you do that? I followed Waze and it said it was the shortest way,’ ” Cryblskey said. “I get to learn a lot of the new roads really quick.”
That’s because — in addition to being a Clark County native — Cryblskey, 34, with a title of AMR, or automated meter reading, driver, spends his days driving around in a vehicle that is hooked up with a laptop in the front passenger’s side, taking in information about customers’ electric or water meters. He has to drive into areas that, generally, no one else other than a resident of that particular street would need to.
The laptop, running a program called Itron, is loaded with every electric customer’s information. As he drives by each home, the information is transmitted to the computer, and the homes, represented by small dots on the laptop screen, disappear as the signal is received.
“I tell people it’s almost like playing Pac-Man,” he said on a recent drive through the Salmon Creek and Felida neighborhoods. “The transmitter is on and basically telling it that my truck is sending the signal to the meter.”
He and one other full-time driver split up all of Clark County to read meters. He has worked for Clark Public Utilities since graduating from CAM Academy and wasn’t interested in working for his father’s auto repair shop, Joe’s Body & Fender.
“Some of it has water, all of it has electric. A lot of cities (track) their own water — the city of Battle Ground, city of Ridgefield. They have their own water systems,” Cryblskey said. “We’ve divided the county up to 19 sections that are roughly enough to have it get read in one day and be sent up through billing.”
On that particular Friday, Cryblskey was tasked with snagging data from 6,088 homes. In July, there were 193,377 customers consuming 316,053,233 kilowatt-hours, according to monthly data provided to The Columbian by the utility. Not many live “off the grid”; according to a November 2018 Columbian story, there were only nine customers in the county who had battery backup systems.
While it’s fairly infrequent, Cryblskey — who likes to listen to sports talk radio on his long drives — occasionally runs into a failure. For some reason, Pac-Man just won’t eat the dot on the screen. At that point, he must investigate the situation and figure out why the meter isn’t transmitting data. He reckons he runs into about five to 10 failures during a shift of over 6,000 readings.
One home’s meter that day was getting a new electrical panel; a team of Advanced Electric employees were inspecting the wires while the meter itself lay on the ground of the home. Cryblskey wouldn’t be able to get a read since it wasn’t hooked up.
He has to wander up to people’s homes to get manual readings on a contraption that looks like a cellphone from the early 1990s on a fairly frequent basis.
The stories of the encounters meter readers have doing such work is well documented — everything from unfortunate encounters with dogs, angry customers and even discovering remains. Some customers have even written letters into The Columbian about meter readers.
“Imagine my surprise this afternoon, when I looked out to my backyard to see an unidentified man standing near the window looking back at me,” read a March 19 letter to the editor by Ariel Young of Vancouver. The letter indicated that the employee didn’t knock.
Cryblskey offered his perspective: “A lot of times when we’re showing up, it’s slightly a surprise visit. We try knocking and getting the customer’s attention, but a lot of times, we’ll do that and people won’t answer. I still have to figure out what’s going on with the meter. So I’ll try knocking and get the customer’s attention best I can. But sometimes that works, and other times it doesn’t.”
One time, despite trying to knock, Cryblskey said he encountered an irate gun owner.
“(The meter) was around the back, and so I had to unlatch the gate and read the meter. The guy came out into the backyard with a gun pointed at me and started yelling at me and asking what I was doing,” Cryblskey recalled. He maintained eye contact, he said, and just explained what was going on.
The future of meter readers doing work by hand has been in question since the 1990s. Some cities, such as Spokane, have implemented smart meter systems which are supposed to better help customers monitor consumption and automatically transmit the information to the utility.
The job has already changed quite a bit for Cryblskey, who said the team of meter readers has decreased over the years. Clark Public Utilities tested smart meters in 2009, but decided against pursuing it at that time, and “there are not currently plans to move to that type of meter across the service area,” according to Erica Erland, director of communications at Clark Public Utilities.
Cryblskey, recalling the study, said that the “geographical diversity” of the county prevents smart readers from offering accurate information in some areas, and that for verification, a person will be needed.
“I don’t think that this job is ever going to 100 percent go away. I think it could drastically change,” he said.