Q. I've sent you a picture of a gizmo that's attached to the light pole at the corner of Dublin Boulevard and Shannon Lane in Belleville. I've seen others on the top of power poles at various locations in the area, including Central Park Drive in O'Fallon. The local joke is that it's the National Security Agency keeping tabs on us. Can you tell me what it might be?
-- Jim Patten, of Belleville
A. You've got the right idea, but the wrong "agency."
Instead of the NSA monitoring phone calls and e-mails, it's actually a piece of Ameren equipment that's keeping track of your home power usage. It is called an automated meter reading collector, Brian Bretsch, communications executive with Ameren in Collinsville, told me.
It works like this: If Ameren has placed an automated meter on your home, the meter constantly keeps track of how much gas and electricity you're using. Your home meter sends this data to the collector you see on the pole, which then relays the information to Ameren so you can be billed. About half of Ameren customers in its 43,700-square-mile service territory now have automated meters, which do away with the need for human meter readers.
And they're just the start, Bretsch said. Ameren Illinois is currently working on the next generation of meters known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI. Instead of just one-way communication as exists now, the new AMI technology will allow two-way talk between your home and Ameren.
Data coming from your home will be used for billing, troubleshooting power outages and analyzing rate structures. In return, the company will be sending you information so you can monitor your hour-by-hour energy use through a web portal. By doing so, Ameren hopes you can better manage your usage -- and save money.
"Ameren Illinois will begin installation of the first 40,000 AMI meters sometime this summer in a location that will be announced in the future," Bretsch said. "As part of our Modernization Action Plan (MAP), we'll be installing approximately 780,000 electric meters in customer homes and businesses over the next six years."
Quite a change from the days when you wanted to make sure you were decent when the guy popped his head in the door and yelled, "Meter man!"
Q. In reference to your recent column on disabled parking laws, the most astonishing thing is that they can be enforced and ticketed only by officials of the secretary of state. That's why you see cars with the secretary's emblem during the holidays.
A. I have to respectfully dispute your contention so you -- and anyone else with this misapprehension -- don't steer anyone else wrong.
The truth is that any sworn police officer has the right to enter onto private property to ticket cars illegally parked in spaces for the disabled, according to an opinion by the state attorney general. And, he can do it whether he is notified of a public complaint or he's simply on patrol.
"I know it's a low priority, obviously, and police can't get out there all the time," said Bill Bogdan, the secretary of state's disability liaison. "Then by the time they get there the cars are usually gone if someone has called to complain.
"Maybe where your reader is confused is that he doesn't see any local law enforcement do it other than the stories when the secretary of state launches a holiday crackdown. But any police officer can enforce the provisions of the parking program on private property.
Q. Why does Belleville's website no longer allow us to see the project plans for the roundabouts being constructed on Illinois 158 at 13 and 15?
A. For reasons unclear, the plans simply were not transferred when the city launched its new Internet website at www.belleville.net, said Tom Borsch, an engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation in Collinsville.
Perhaps it was an oversight or perhaps they felt the line drawings were a little dated now that work is well under way. After all, if you go to www.belleville.net now and search for "IL 158 13/15 roundabouts," you can watch two short animated films that probably will give you a much better feel for the new traffic patterns.
Borsch was kind enough to send me the old sketches, so I'll pass them onto you if you still find them useful. Otherwise, I'll mention it to Sharon Strausbaugh, the city's marketing manager, when she returns next week.
Where were the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence stored during much of World War II?
Answer to Thursday's trivia: In the 1800s, cans came with the following opening instructions: "Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer." Finally in 1858, Ezra Warner patented a can opener that featured a small bayonet to anchor it in the can and a sickle to cut it open. Still, the apparatus was so potentially dangerous that grocers had to use them to open cans before they left the store. It wasn't until 1870 that William Lyman, of Meriden, Conn., invented his rotating wheel opener.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com or call 618-239-2465.