- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

Somewhere beneath the streets of Washington on a workday are three men who have climbed down amid the pipes, cables and conduits to make sure your company isn’t paying too much — or too little — for water service.

Andre Nickens, Harvey Roach Jr. and Anthony “A.J.” Johnson form one of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s six meter-technician crews.

They are assigned to test the water meters for most of the large properties in the city. It’s a job that requires a tolerance for grime, small spaces and an occasional soaking.

On this day, the team is headed to the Adams Morgan area, where they have been assigned to test meters connected to horse stables operated by the National Park Service. The meters are located in a small underground vault in a clearing atop a steep hill overlooking the horse stables.

After parking the truck along a curb, Mr. Nickens, the most experienced member of the team, finds the two large doors that cover the vault. He unlocks the doors (“There’s a trick to it,” he says) and opens them to find a maze of filthy pipes of various thicknesses. On the pipes are three meters that read how quickly water passes through.

The team’s job is to run a series of tests to measure a meter’s accuracy. A meter that is less than 97 percent accurate must be repaired. To get started, all three men put on navy-blue jump suits. It’s time to get dirty.

Mr. Johnson goes to the back of the truck and unloads a 25-foot hose attached to an electronic testing unit. Mr. Nickens and the younger, baby-faced Mr. Roach climb down into the vault and unscrew a large cap on one of the pipes.

They then lift lids that cover the three meter gauges. They screw a metal hose adapter into one of the pipes, then connect the hose that runs to the meter.

Mr, Nickens opens a large valve on one of the pipes that allows water to flow into the hose. Mr. Johnson pulls a lever on the meter testing machine and the water begins flowing through it at about 200 cubic feet per minute, before it spills down the hillside.

The testing machine registers on a digital screen how fast the water is flowing, and after exactly five minutes Mr. Nickens and Mr. Roach read the numbers on the meters to ensure that all three add up to 200. As it turns out, the meters are about 97 percent accurate in this test.

While casually smoking on a cigarette, Mr. Johnson slowly shuts off the meter testing machine, stopping the flow of water. The team then goes on to perform a test on each gauge individually.

Testing the meters requires a strong knowledge of plumbing, mechanics and mathematics, as well as the ability to keep accurate records. Mr. Nickens, 48, is considered the “journeyman” of the group, and writes down most of the meter readings and performs calculations.

“I like the math part,” he says. “I got As in trigonometry.”

This was a relatively easy day for the men. For one thing, the meters do not need to be repaired. But even more important, these particular water meters are located in a vault that allows them to stand up and have space to work. Usually, the team works beneath busy streets or buildings where they must climb into small crawl spaces or manholes.

“If you have a problem getting muddy and dirty or like keeping your hands dry, you won’t like this job,” Mr. Nickens says.

But these three men have no complaints. In fact, Mr. Roach and Mr. Johnson applied for jobs with the meter technician unit after starting out reading meters instead of testing them.

“I like my job. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here,” says Mr. Roach, 32. “I like the people I work with. A lot of guys around here have a lot of experience and you can learn from them.”

Indeed, Mr. Roach is a relative newcomer to WASA, having joined the authority nine years ago, compared with 26 years for Mr. Nickens and 19 for Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Nickens is happy to show younger employees the tricks of the trade, but is hardly a domineering boss. He knows what it is like to start out in a grueling position with little experience.

“When I first started it was on-the-job training,” he says. “I started with a sledgehammer and a pick.”

Testing meters for WASA has taken the three men all over the city, from the tallest office buildings downtown to major apartment complexes and even the White House. And while the crew is often called on to work in nasty weather conditions, they appreciate being a vital cog in the District’s effort to keep water flowing to the people who live and work there.

“It’s a job I can guarantee the city can’t do without,” Mr. Nickens says.

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