Who’s responsible for maintaining a healthy AMR/AMI Utility?
The most important word in this title is “system”. Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems consist of the meter, meter register output to the radio transmitter, radio receiver, meter reading software, reading software to billing software interface and the billing software. If any one of these components is not working properly, the system fails. No wonder why the industry has had such a long techno-learning curve and only within the last several years started to produce system success stories.
AMR and AMI systems deployed in Water, Gas and Electric Utilities are growing quickly in popularity due primarily to direct evidence of the benefits seen by Utilities in areas of better data efficacy, reduced costs and improved customer service. These system products can be implemented in the smallest to the largest of Utilities with varying degrees of integrated technology (IT) capabilities provided by the Utility. AMR and AMI vendors have developed strong technical support capabilities to assist all of their customers with implementation and ongoing system support needs.
One of the biggest barriers to system success in this industry is the commitment of the Utility to maintain the health of their own system. Whether AMR/AMI vendors have created exaggerated expectations during the sale process, or the Utility has not completely understood what it will take to keep their system performing optimally, system performance degradation occurs in no small part to the Utilities lack of vigilance over keeping the system running properly. It is natural to point toward the hardware in a system when things start going wrong but often times this is not where the system health is declining. Utilities no matter what size need to commit to a program of maintenance to assure reading and data management continuity.
This maintenance program must start at the meter and its radio transmitter. Wireless reading systems need strong radio propagation to get their information to the receiver, as they were designed to accomplish. Barriers to the signal can mean the difference between a good system and a bad system. These barriers can also add significant cost, especially with fixed network radio systems where the poor propagation from one meter can cause thousands in additional collector expense.
A system which performs at design levels when installed and then starts to see reading degradation may very easily have been corrupted by overgrown vegetation or other environmental causes around the meter and transmitter.
Water Meter pits may be the most difficult to assure strong radio signals from as the radio is typically at or below ground level and propagation through meter box lids can vary widely based on materials of construction, placement of the radio and the surrounding environment. Meter readers have for a century been under appreciated for the maintenance work they do at the meters to assure an ability to get continuous reading. When meter readers stopped opening meter pits monthly due to the onset of AMR, bad things started happening in those boxes. During a fixed network system audit, we recently found a water meter box with a metal wheel barrel turned over on top of the box and another with a pallet of ceramic tile placed on top. Utilities must develop a periodic program of meter and meter box maintenance once an AMR or AMI system is deployed. Failure to do this will almost assuredly result in a reduction in system performance.
Meter reading equipment is computer based hardware. Its effective life is almost exactly what your laptop is at home. Multiple sources we researched said the economic lifespan of a laptop computer is two to a maximum of four years. To keep reading system performance high, reading equipment upgrades are essential to this performance. Often times the radio transmitter is the target of criticism in a system but remember that the propagation is only as good as the how loud the radio is shouting and how sensitive the ears are listening. Utilities need to pay attention to new reading equipment as they become available and budget for these upgrades. The cost is minimal compared to the cost of the total project and will extend the useful life of your system.
Reading system software upgrades may be the number one area where AMR/AMI systems need maintenance. Too many times to count we have visited a Utility who is on annual maintenance but have not kept their meter reading software up to date. We have identified software versions that are three years old and are running version 5.0 when the Vendors just released 9.8. This is another area where the hardware can be targeted as not working properly, and it is the software maintenance that has affected the hardware’s performance. Reading system software upgrades are identical to getting the oil changed regularly in your car. If you don’t do it, the whole thing will get gunked up and eventually stop working. Utilities need to assign an individual to watch system health who understands how the components work and inter-relate to each other.
A number of customers we have discussed AMR/AMI system maintenance with, have stated that the most unexpected challenge they have faced, are the additional IT support required by the Utility during the installation phase of the project. Utilities must be prepared and budget for this additional resource requirement as part of an AMR/AMI system deployment.
In our opinion, the term Automatic Meter Reading is an oxymoron. There is nothing automatic about AMR. AMR is a process improvement and a system that must be managed. You read often about AMR/AMI success stories in the industry trade magazines. These are the systems where the Utility personnel have taken the responsibility to make AMR/AMI work for them. Utilities that assume that AMR is really Automatic and will run itself, or that the vendor will run it remotely for them, are the ones with failed systems. Utilities must understand what they are buying and what their responsibilities are upfront, to make this valuable technology work for their individual needs.