In the United States alone over 1000 Public and Private Utility companies have implemented or are implementing Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) systems. All Utilities have unique reasons for moving toward AMR but the process of deciding what to do is challenging for each individual Utility. We hope that the following question and answer session will bring the subject to clarity for you in your process.
1. Why do I need an Automatic Meter Reading System?
If your Utility is metered (not all in the U.S. are), you currently have a meter reading system or process. That process is certainly not perfect and continuous improvement is every Utilitiy’s goal. Many utilities have partially automated their meter reading systems with varying levels of success. The evolution of meter reading has, as all advancement has, had success and failure.
Today, the industry of Automatic Meter Reading has reached a level of maturity and meter reading systems are available that work extremely well and add tremendous value to the users. The answer to why you should automate your Utility meter reading systems is the same answer as to why you should use computers at work, have copy machines that collate and use a cell phone when not in the office. They improve the quality of work, create increased productivity and make your utility more efficient.
2. What options do I have to improve meter reading efficiency?
Moving on from reading meters directly or with remote counters, the process starts with improved data collection.
- Handheld Computers – Aid in the data capture of meter readings with readers punching in readings to be downloaded to the billing system at the end of the day. This system automates the Utility back end of the system, gets rid of paper route books and organizes the meter reading process. Many Utilities have moved to this step with great success.
- Proximity Reading – Adding a probe to the handheld and an electronic pad to the meter has allowed the process to be further automated with the meter reader, touching or scanning the pad to collect the meter reading. This process eliminates Meter reader keying errors and speeds up the number of meter that can be read daily from 200 plus or minus to 400 plus or minus.
- Walkby Radio – Adding a radio transmitter to the meter and a receiver to the handheld computer has removed the meter reader from going to each meter to collect the reading. Reading efficiency goes up dramatically when RF is implemented in the reading process. Walkby Radio is used primarily in very small systems, Less than 3000 services or for Pilot systems before driveby radio is implemented.
- Driveby Radio – Driveby radio reading was the next giant step in automating meter reading after the introduction of the handheld computer for data collection. Drive by radio utilizes a more powerful receiver and allows the meter reader to drive through a neighborhood and collect 300 or more readings in 30 minutes or as many as 5000 reads or more per day. Now what took a meter reader a month to read can be done in one day, speeding upon the process and the efficiency of the back end processing of bills.
- Telephone reading – I mention telephone reading because it has been implemented in some locations with limited success due to physical phone line restrictions. This type of AMR is being used in commercial applications and SCADA systems where two-way communication is necessary.
- Fixed Network Radio –Takes the meter readers out of the field completely and brings the readings directly to the utility. This system utilizes high power transmitters attached to the meters and Data Collection Units located on power poles or public buildings throughout the reading area. The collection devices then report meters readings back to the utility for billing or other data management purposes. Fixed Network radio reading is being utilized in large and small Utilities where the concentration of accounts is high enough to justify the fixed network system. Fixed network meter reading has now moved the process from speeding up meter reading to almost instantaneous reading of your meters.
- Satellite, GPS, Cable Etc. reading – These systems are in developmental phases and may come to market over the next several years.
3. How do I know what kind of system my Utility needs?
All Utilities have unique needs that will drive their AMR requirements. Some determining factors are:
- Climate – Indoor or Pit mounted meters
- Population Density – Urban areas with high concentration of meters may be better for Fixed Network while urban areas with one customer 10 miles out of town may be better for Driveby Radio.
- Traffic conditions – Some urban areas like Atlanta, Washington DC and Miami are to congested for Driveby radio to be efficient. Fixed network radio may be better in these locations even though driveby radio would work.
- Safety – This is a major reason that Utilities go to AMR and may effect your Utilities decision to use Scanread, Walkby or Driveby and Fixed Network. Liabilities of meter readers walking down the street or going into meter pits is too high for many Utilities.
- Access – Most Utilities have hard to read meters. Some systems have all hard to read meters with installations in non-passable alleys and backyards. Radio Frequency AMR systems eliminate need to find the meter every reading and cleans up lost meter issues.
- Customer Service – Customer image is a serious concern for most Utilities. Customer complaints on mis-reads, no-reads and trespassing adds resource cost and makes the customers believe that the Utility is not doing a good job. AMR systems significantly reduce a customer service call, which has multiple positive effects on Utility costs and image. Many Utilities have moved to RF AMR to get the meter reader out of people’s backyards.
4. How do I know that a decision I make now on AMR is the right one for the future?
This one is easy. Use a system that supports open architecture. Open architecture is the ability to use anyone’s meter on the meter reading system of choice. Several systems from major competitors only allow the system to be read by their meter. This means if the Utility has a problem with that vendor they have to switch the whole reading system instead of just the meter vendor. It is also a good idea to look forward to see that the system you are buying is going to service the Utility in the future. Is the system expandable and upgradeable?
5. Do I really want all those batteries in my system?
Batteries and power consumption has really come light-years (excuse the pun) in the last decade. Most reading systems on the market have battery systems that last the life of the product. Make sure that the batteries in the system you chose have a strong warranty and a proven lifespan. This issue is about the difference between having the power to do the things you require from a meter system and not. Batteries are part of the cost of better Utility management.
6. With a Radio Frequency system, what is the real range?
I love listening to engineers try to not answer this question Experience is the only true answer. Radio transmitters shout a message and a receiver tries to hear that message. The strength of the shouting and the sensitivity of the ears listening determine the range. Lower power radios (used primarily in walkby and driveby systems) have a range from 10-1000 ft. depending on everything. High power radios (used in fixed network) have a range of ½ mile to 10 miles depending on the same everything. Any other answer is just guessing. Most systems today read 99% of the meters they try and read. This is a huge improvement over manual systems and the range issues are overcome in the field by the humans operating the reading equipment.
7. Do I need trained technical staff to support an AMR system?
Yes, Training is a critical component of any AMR system implementation. Having said that, most systems are now very easy to use and fairly problem free. In addition, if you choose a company with good local support staff, most issues can be handled quickly and efficiently. It is always best to have several people in your systems that know how to run the equipment and interface with the billing system. Even though these systems are easy to use, they often have more buttons than you need. This confuses operators who are not trained. It is normally not necessary to have a dedicated technical staff to operate these systems
8. How do I avoid not being a Guinea Pig?
Another easy question:
- Use a system that has a track record of performance
- Check references of other Utilities using this system
- Visit sites of Utilities using this system. Some systems have more sites in the north where AMR has been practiced for a decade. Check long-term references.
9. How can my Utility afford and Justify AMR?
This question is easy but a bit complex. First, dividing meter reader cost into the number of reads per year captures only a small percentage of actual cost reduction and revenue enhancements of an AMR system. If you are determined to make your AMR decision on this calculation, your Utility will never implement AMR. Here are just some of the variables that go into cost justification.
- Meter Reader Safety – Liability cost of dog bites, traffic accidents and permanent disabilities.
- Meter Reader Training and turnover costs
- Meter Reader Salaries – Fully loaded with benefits, pension and insurance
- Vehicles and other equipment costs including insurance
- Customer Service Costs using current system
- Utility Image
- Added revenue from New meters
- Enhanced Cash Flow from faster reading
- Reduced move-in and move-out reads
- Enhanced revenue from accurate reading
- ETC, ETC.
The bottom line is that AMR is a process improvement. The whole life cost advantages over manual or semi-manual reading are easily definable. Payback is 2-5 years depending on the current accuracy of your meters, efficiency of your department operations, etc. This leaves you with 10 –13 years of system effectiveness after the payback.
Affording this system is the easiest question of the day. With a substantial payback you can often finance the system paying back over 5 years at a lower payment than the added revenue you will see from new metering. This has been proven and makes the decision to move to AMR as a recent City Manager put it “a no brainer”.
10. How should we go about implementing the system we choose?
Many Utilities want to implement over 10 years. We have never seen an implementation take this long because after the system starts going in the Utility want s it to go in as fast as possible. Most utilities now ask for a turnkey project to get the meters, reading equipment, systems hardware and software and installation in as short a period of time is as practical. This allows the benefits to start quickly. Pick a company to work with that is local, has experience to do this job properly and will support the installation of a system, not just hardware. Go for one stop shopping.
Good Luck and happy reading!!!!!!