Many utilities, usually those with fewer than 500 customers, still collect meter readings manually. But those that can afford to amortize the cost of converting to automated systems are benefiting from more than lower labor costs. Depending on the technology they've chosen, they're finding and fixing leaks more quickly and enlisting ratepayers in conservation efforts.
There are three types of automated meter reading (AMR) methods:
- Walk-around. Meters are equipped to transmit readings to handheld devices; data are later downloaded to a central billing system.
- Mobile. Same as above, except that the data-collection units are located in vehicles, making the process of meter reading much faster.
- Fixed-network, or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Eliminates human intervention because readings are transmitted to collection points throughout a wireless network and then to a central data-collection point. AMI systems allow for robust water-system monitoring, largely because readings can be taken at shorter intervals and the higher volume of collected data allows for more in-depth analyses of water-system performance.
Since late last year, when the Consolidated Utility District of Rutherford County in Murfreesboro, Tenn., installed a radio frequency (RF) system on nearly 42,000 meters, Assistant General Manager William Dunnill, PE, has watched productivity and safety increase dramatically. The $6 million project used cash reserves that were repaid from a $20 million bond issue.
The meter-mounted RF signaling devices emit radio signals every few seconds to an RF receiver antenna connected to dedicated laptop computers via a serial port. The computers' GIS software shows all of the meters to be read on a given route. Employees return to the office and download the data from the laptops into the utility's billing system.
Previously, the utility sent out eight individuals per reading cycle, and each one required about six hours to complete a route. “A lot of our routes are rural with a lot of heavily traveled roads, but they're relatively narrow,” Dunnill says. “There wasn't a good spot to pull off and read a meter. And we had guys climbing fences and going through brush and wood to get to the meters.”
Now one employee reads all the meters in about four hours with few, if any, errors. “Our rereads have gone to virtually none,” says Dunnill. The conversion could free up about seven employees for other work, saving $390,000 — or almost 90% — annually.
Because the system records radio signals every few seconds and stores the data for two years, billing disputes are quickly settled. “When a customer says there's no way he used that much water, we pull his history and show his consumption every hour,” Dunnill says. “Customer service personnel discuss consumption intelligently instead of just saying, ‘Well, that's what our meter said; you've just got to accept it.'”
In Zachary, La., contracting out water and gas meter-reading for a 20-square-mile service area was costing more than $100,000 annually. Bills were being estimated, some meters hadn't been read for years, and city employees had to make rereads when more than one customer was tied into a meter.
Using $1.2 million from a bond provided by the state's Local Government Environmental Facilities and Community Development Authority, the city has retrofitted more than 12,000 commercial/industrial and residential meters since 2003. Master Meter Inc. RF signaling devices transmit signals to a data collector wirelessly using the provider's 3G technology.
In tests, one employee read 1,200 meters in two and a half hours by driving by — instead of walking up to — each one. The reader also uses Greentree Software Service's MasterLink software suite for route navigation.
“We've cut our reading times in half, along with about $75,000 a year by not having to use a reading service,” says Public Utility Director Chris Davezak. The system also detects leaks and potential meter tampering.
WHEN YOU JUST CAN'T GET THERE
Physically vast or hard-to-reach service areas like the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority's lend themselves to fixed-network systems that have the additional benefit of facilitating systemwide monitoring.
“We have one island where the walk-around reader had to wait from one to three hours for a ferry to read 95 meters,” says Information Technology Director Carl Brewster.
The authority has been overhauling its equipment since 2006 in a $10 million project scheduled to be finished by 2011 based on graduated rate increases. More than 45,000 customers are getting all-new meters with registers that can be read using mobile, handheld, and fixed-network data collectors.
Neptune Technology Group Inc.'s automatic reading and billing system uses Hexagram Inc.'s STAR technology to detect leaks, reverse flow, and tampering. “We've been notifying our customers of leaks as we install those meters, and that's been a great benefit for us from a public relations as well as a conservation standpoint,” says Brewster. “That data will be made available to customers via our Web site so they'll be able to monitor their consumption.”
The authority contracted out installation for the first two phases of implementation, but then brought the work in-house. The decision enabled field service representatives to take ownership of the project and realize that their jobs entail more than just reading meters.
Twenty-six employees working out of three offices used to be required to track water use. Although the technology isn't being used to eliminate positions, several field service representatives have retired without having to be replaced. Even though several more are expected to retire over the next few years, the system has freed the remaining employees to work on key activities — audits, conservation efforts, and leak detection — for which the authority previously couldn't spare them.
—Talend is a freelancer and founder of Write Results Inc., based in West Dundee, Ill.
Using advanced metering infrastructure to benchmark water use.
Southern California's Cucamonga Valley Water District continually expands its automated meter reading (AMR) capability. Most recently, the district — which serves 200,000 customers through 49,000 connections in Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Ontario, and Upland — is deploying a fixed network that involves ratepayers in conservation efforts.
“We have an obligation to our customers to be very mindful of our natural resource and we can't just continue to waste it,” Poulsen says. “If the tools are out there, it's worth doing.”
Since testing Itron Inc. technology in a 12-month pilot project from 2005 through 2006, the district has installed 26,000 new system-compatible meters through a meter-exchange program. Interface units connected to the meters transmit readings to several receiver-transmitters deployed in fixed locations. Poulsen says the signal strength of the upgraded radio units is almost 1,000 times more powerful than the district's old mobile collection system.
Initially, cellular data (data can also be sent via Ethernet or radio) was sent to a dedicated Web site hosted by Itron. Eventually, the district set up its own servers to run Itron's Enterprise Edition software. Managers can query which customers' water consumption exceeds a set limit when the temperature also exceeds a set limit, and track usage by various intervals.
“From that, we can develop a budget: If you live in this kind of environment and you have this number of people in your home, then here's about the average amount of water you should be using,” Poulsen says.
The leap in technological capability is not limited to ratepayer data. The network also detects leaks in service lines using sonic technology. “This fixed network moves from being a meter reader to becoming a pressure recorder, a solenoid valve that can shut off a customer's valve automatically,” he says.
Poulsen also looks forward to having access to usage data.
“Besides sending a signal out every four hours, the network will also send back 24-hour incremental data. I can get a snapshot of water consumption from midnight to midnight. Now I get a daily water loss report: what was metered and what was produced. You can break that down per pressure zone and identify which zones are losing more water than other zones. It basically turns it into a modeling tool for water-production systems.”
The total implementation cost for the system is projected at about $15 million, not counting the district's own labor and maintenance.