If you’re a new property owner in Los Angeles County, the L.A. Department of Water and Power may soon ask you for something very precious: Your house key.
"Every single one of these has keys in it," said LADWP senior meter reader Loretta Galvan as she points to rows of filing cabinets in the downtown office. "So I’m saying what, 10,000, 11,000 — quite a bit."
Galvan has been with the agency for 28 years, and her job is to keep track of those 11,000 residential and commercial keys.
"The customer sends us keys… we process a little card here that gives the customer name, their address, what the key is for… next they are tagged, and over here is where they’re put," she said.
Her small corner of the LADWP’s downtown office is lined with those filing cabinets, each drawer packed with hundreds of coded keys.
Here's why: Most people living in older homes also have old electricity meters. The meters don’t have radio frequency capabilities, and they’re indoors. So unless you’re around during the day to let a meter reader in every couple of months, the LADWP suggests you fork over your house key.
If you do, it’ll make John Cruz’s job way easier. He's one of 70 meter readers in LADWP's metro area. He's traveled the city to collect water and power reads, including commercial buildings like Griffith Observatory and Cedars-Sinai.
On a Friday morning, Cruz is reading residential meters in the Hollywood Hills. The weather is muggy, and he's sweating. He's got 580 reads left at about 10 a.m, "which isn’t that many," since some stops have multiple meters.
Some residents will keep their drapes open to avoid handing over a key. But thousands of others have no qualms about it. Cruz counts how many keys he’s got in his fanny pack that day.
"Seven. Sometimes I have over 20," he said. "You carry that your whole day; you just hold on to those keys, and make sure you don’t lose them."
When Cruz gets started in the morning, he only knows the first and last address on his route. He carries around a handheld computer that tells him everything else he needs to know along the way: Addresses, where meters are located, what coded key to use, and whether or not there’s a dog.
"You know, you go into a yard and say they have two dogs or something, and you ask the the customers to put the dogs away and they do — for the most part. Sometimes little kids are home, and they open up the back door, and the minute they open the back door, the dogs are charging after you," he said.
That’s why meter readers always have an umbrella on hand. Apparently, they make great dog deterrents.
But I know what you’re thinking. There’s a lot of moving parts here. Do they ever lose the keys?
Since Galvan oversees all the keys, she was the right person to ask.
"Me personally; no I haven’t," she laughed.
But, has anyone else lost a key?
"Ahhhh, yeah they have. Yeah they have. Because they’re on a key ring, sometimes maybe if they don’t close it or it stretches, you might drop a key," she said.
This all seems archaic, right? Why can’t we just upgrade our meters?
"If it’s the customer’s responsibility, we can’t require them to upgrade their power," said field supervisor Gerald Montoya. "It can be tens of thousands of dollars to rewire their property, because they would have to upgrade to the new 120-to-240 volt system."
Montoya is pretty confident meter readers won’t be obsolete anytime soon.
"At the rate it’s going, no, it would take decades to phase out everything," he said.
To see photos of how the LADWP organizes 11,000 keys at its downtown office, check out our slideshow above.