RANTOUL — A village that has mammoth airport hangars at its disposal has options most communities don’t have.
That’s the case with Rantoul, where the village leased out the use of Hangar 1 to Donco Electrical Construction crews for the installation of more than 150,000 gas meters and nearly 140,000 gas modules in various parts of the state.
"We are in (the meter-installation) business for Ameren Illinois, so we travel all over the state and hope to get into Missouri," Donco Senior Supervisor Mark Musson said.
"We felt very fortunate when we were invited to come to Rantoul. We were looking for a warehouse. We were looking for a lot of room that was not expensive."
The company found it on the former Chanute Air Force Base. You don’t get much bigger around here than an airplane hangar, which the company used to store its thousands of pieces of equipment and park its fleet of vehicles.
The move-in to Hangar 1 took place in August. Musson said he told officials on a Monday that the hangar was ready, and the following day 10 semi loads of meters had pulled in for unloading.
Airport Manager Eric Vences allowed for the use of a village-owned forklift to unload the semi trailers containing 7,000 meters each.
At its peak, 140 meter installers traveled to Rantoul daily to pick up another batch of electric meters and gas modules and then head out to install them in towns including Paxton, Champaign, Danville, Paxton and Gilman. They then branched out to Bloomington and Edwardsville, later to East St. Louis.
Some installers stayed nights at local motels, but many drove from home every morning to make it to work from all parts of the state, including Peoria, Golconda and Chillicothe.
Originally scheduled to work four 10-hour days, Donco picked up the slack for another company that fell behind and moved to five 10-hour days. Later they upped that to six days a week.
"A good installer can install 60-70 meters a day," Musson said. "A good gas installer can install about 30-35. There’s no standing around."
Installers take photos of the home, the old meter before it’s removed, then what it looks like after taken out and the new meter.
He said it takes only 7 1/2 to 10 minutes to take out a home’s old electric meter and install a new automated one that can be read electronically. Homeowners aren’t required to have them, but Ameren will charge a fee for every home that retains its old meter.
"The smart meter, ... it’s (the strength) of a baby-monitor signal. It’s a weak signal. Part of the technology, instead of sending out an employee to cut you off for nonpayment, they just flip a switch in Kansas City."
The smart meters are also handy in alerting Ameren officials what areas are without power after a storm.
The old gas, aluminum and copper meters, which are worth about $5 apiece, are salvaged and sent to a company in Bolingbrook. The ones with newer technology are sent to Mattoon.
Musson told the Rantoul Exchange Club that village officials have been helpful to accommodate the company’s needs.
"The only issue we had Jan. 3 or 4 when it’s minus-25 out, you can’t heat an airplane hangar," Musson said, adding that only small portions of the facility are heated.
He said Donco vehicles initially were parked outside the hangar, but at the urging of village officials, they were moved inside when things got really cold. It eliminated having to scrape frost off the windows each morning.
Donco is winding down its use of the Rantoul facility. The company will maintain four warehousemen and a supervisor here, but as for the large numbers of workers and trucks, that’s slowly scaling back.