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Push for water, sewer projects brings opportunities, challenges for East Helena business

Dennis Burgard
M.E.T. Control Panel
Posted at 5:29 PM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-24 13:31:27-04

EAST HELENA — The influx of federal stimulus money has many local governments in Montana looking at upgrading their water and wastewater systems. For businesses like M.E.T. Automation and Controls, that could bring both benefits and challenges.

“As a small business, it’s always good news to have activity, to have projects,” said owner Dennis Burgard.

Burgard started M.E.T. in Anaconda in 1996. He moved the business to Helena in 2001 and then to its current location in East Helena in 2017.

The company assembles electronic control panels for water and sewer systems across Montana and in neighboring states. They also write the program code and design the computer interface for operators.

“What they’re asking of us is how they can control their process better, and as importantly, we can give them alarms and notifications when there’s upset conditions,” Burgard said. “If they do have a process that has failed, a component that has failed, a tank that may be going very low for drinking water level, they need to be alarmed, and so they’re asking for a more robust manner of doing that.”

Burgard says M.E.T. is usually working on an average of six different projects in a year. However, they’ve been receiving a lot more inquiries after the passage of federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act. In Montana alone, the state has committed $250 million in ARPA funding to water and sewer projects, and local governments are dedicating even more.

“We’ve always had busy and slow times, but certainly there’s a huge push right now,” said Burgard.

Today, M.E.T. has six employees, and they’re planning to bring on another. While they put the panels together themselves, they purchase all the individual electronic components from other companies. In one smaller panel, Burgard says they could use nearly 500 components.

That need for that equipment has become a challenge. Because of demand, Burgard says it’s harder to get items like radios and processors.

“Typically we can have those on-shelf or in our office by about two weeks, and recently we’ve placed an order and it’s going to be the middle of January for those products at this point,” he said.

One particularly important component that’s hard to find is an analog input, which gives more precise readings of things like tank levels and pressure.

While the rush of stimulus money is spurring projects now, Burgard has some concerns about the future. He said it’s easiest for his business when there is a steady flow of new work, and he wonders what the future will bring if so many localities do their work all at once.

“My concern is down the road two, three, four years, are we going to have just a feast and famine scenario where we don’t have the projects down the road that would naturally be occurring,” he said.