The task of installing a large-scale AMR/AMI system can be overwhelming, but some utilities are learning how to make the process proceed smoothly.
By Dan Rafter
The project was a daunting one. The Greater Cincinnati Water Works, a utility that serves 241,000 metered accounts and 1.1 million residents in the city of Cincinnati and surrounding Hamilton County, was upgrading to an automated meter reading (AMR) service.
The benefits of upgrading to an AMR system were many: The utility would no longer have to worry about gaining access to the 60% of water meters that were inside commercial and residential buildings. They’d be able to shift workers from meter-reading duties to important customer service or maintenance positions. And, they’d be able to more accurately track the amount of water that their customers were consuming, something that would certainly provide a much-needed revenue boost.
But to take advantage of these benefits, utility officials had to first go through the hard work of upgrading such a massive system. It was a job that would last from the summer of 2003 through the fall of 2007. During this time, officials with the utility spent long hours educating their own staffers about AMR and how it works. They spent equally long hours training their staffers on the nuances of customer service, training that would prove essential once customers inevitably began calling about the higher fees that might result from more accurate meters.
And, of course, utility officials had to educate their residential and commercial customers about the many benefits of automated meter reading through a well-coordinated and large-scale public relations effort.
“This certainly was a major project,” says Dave Bennett, field services manager with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. “This was a four-year project, and we were making big changes. We had to run a sophisticated public relations campaign to tell our customers why this was a necessity and how it would benefit them and the utility. That really was the key to ensuring a smooth transition to AMR.”
The Greater Cincinnati Water Works is far from the only utility across the country to undergo a large-scale implementation of an AMR or advanced metering infrastructure—better known by the acronym AMI—system.
These projects are often necessary in order for utilities to boost the accuracy of their water usage counts and reduce the labor costs of sending meter readers into the field to manually read customer meters.
No one doubts the many benefits that AMR and AMI systems bring to water utilities. The challenge for utilities, though, lies in convincing customers as well as their own employees, that these large-scale rollouts will ultimately benefit them, and that the utilities aren’t upgrading to automated systems as a way to unfairly charge customers more for their water service.
Those utilities who don’t put in the work necessary to educate both groups—their customers and their workers—will find that their large-scale AMR/AMI rollouts will experience more than a few unpleasant bumps.
“To make these larger rollouts work, you have to get some positive press within the community,” says Norm Daigle, executive vice president with Harris Utilities. “These large-scale rollouts are large investments. You want to make sure that you give yourself every advantage possible when putting them into place. And that includes generating the positive attention in the community and within your own workforce that you need to get the rollout off to a good start.”
Getting Off to a Good Start
Before utilities commit to a large-scale upgrade to an AMR or AMI system, officials with these utilities must first determine why they’re upgrading, and what benefits they expect to receive from automated meter reading or fixed-network meter systems that provide remote utility management features.
Some utilities might be interested in more accurately tracking the amount of water they pump through the system each day. Others might want to be able to more quickly locate and repair possible leaks before they cause more serious damage to a system. Still others might be interested in AMR/AMI for the customer service enhancements they can bring to their systems.
Most, of course, will be interested in a combination of the many benefits that come with an automated metering system.
Utilities that know exactly what they want to accomplish with a large-scale rollout will be more likely to reach their goals than will those that begin the process without a solid plan already in place.
“You have to do a little bit of soul-searching before considering any AMR/AMI project,” says David Hanes, director of strategic marketing with Neptune Technology Group. “You have to make sure that your goals are well-communicated, both to your utility’s management group and employees, and to your utility’s customers. The more planning you do, the more internal discussions you have before deciding to publicly pursue a large-scale change, the more likely you will end up with a system that does what you want it to do.”
Doug McCall, director of marketing with Sensus, says that utilities greatly increase their odds of a successful large-scale rollout when they develop education programs early in the process that are designed to teach both customers and employees how their new automated system works and why utility officials believe the new meters will save both time and money.
Unfortunately, too, many utilities don’t focus on internal or external education programs until after they’ve already installed their new water meters.
That, McCall says, is a mistake.
“A lot of utilities don’t know what they don’t know,” says McCall. “Just like with everything else in business, utilities taking on a big rollout focus on the numbers, on the cost. They focus on the technology costs. Too many fail to realize that this is a culture change they are making. They are changing the culture just as dramatically as they are changing the technology. And they need to communicate the changes clearly to their customers and internal staffers.”
An important example? Some customers might see their water bills increase once more accurate meters are measuring their water consumption. It’s important for utilities to explain this early in the process through online communications, at public meetings and through mailings.
Of course, customers aren’t going to be happy with higher bills, no matter how often their utilities warn them that they might be coming. But if utilities explain this possibility upfront, at least consumers won’t be overly surprised when a higher water bill first arrives in their mailboxes.
It helps, too, if utilities can clearly explain why the upgrade to AMR/AMI technology was necessary.
If the upgrade will save the utility thousands of dollars each year in previously unbilled water, utilities need to share this message, and explain to their customers that they are trying to boost their revenue without asking for tax increases. If the change to an AMR/AMI system means that utility workers will no longer need to enter the homes of consumers, utilities should clearly explain that the new system will result in better security for homeowners.
And if by making a large-scale upgrade to AMI/AMR, utilities will be better able to spot potential water usage spikes more quickly, these utilities need to tell customers that they’ll be able to save them money by notifying them when they might be suffering a leak that otherwise would have gone undetected for weeks.
“Utilities have to be more proactive in making sure that their customers get the information they need before they get a bill that can surprise them,” says Hanes. “Customers need to know what utilities are trying to accomplish, and what system they are implementing to help them do that. These system upgrades bring a range of benefits to customers, everything from better accuracy and efficiency to more security. Utilities need to make their customers aware of this.”
Winning the Public Relations War
Scott Williamson, chief financial officer with Capstone Metering, agrees that those utilities that suffer the most tension with their communities after a large-scale AMR/AMI rollout are those that don’t spend the time to share the details of their upgrades with their customers early in the process.
Poor public relations often causes more problems than does anything related to the technology or infrastructure of AMR/AMI systems, Williamson says.
“The lack of communication with the customers has created most of the problems for utilities,” he says. “The things that utilities forget to do is tell their communities the reasons why they are looking at doing a change-out. They forget to explain that while a change might have some adverse effects on a small number of customers who may see larger bills, the systems will result in utilities that operate more efficiently and better use their budget dollars. Communication is the key. And that’s something that utilities have to understand.”
Why don’t many utilities do a better job of communicating the reasoning behind and benefits of automated upgrades? Williamson says that often the utility officials working on an upgrade are too close to the issue.
These officials spend long days studying potential AMR/AMI systems. They ponder the most intricate details of an upgrade. They weigh all the pros and cons of upgrading and the various systems available to them.
Because they are so immersed in the process, they often forget that their customers know little about meter-reading and water delivery. And these customers almost certainly know little about automated metering systems and the benefits that they bring.
“The utilities forget that what they are doing is going to impact customers who have no insight into what these systems are and what good they can bring to utilities,” says Williamson. “The more communication, no matter what the tech and no matter what the potential drawbacks, the better.”
Williamson says that water utilities should have learned this lesson long ago from the electric industry.
Many of the electric industry’s early rollouts of more advanced meter reading systems ended badly because the electric utilities skimped on marketing the new systems to their customers before installing meters, Williamson says.
Many utilities rolled out new meters and then simply placed notices on consumers’ doors. Consumers, many of whom ignored the notices, were then surprised to find that their bills often rose when more accurate meters were installed. Having never heard beforehand from their utilities about why their meters were changed, these customers wasted little time in voicing their anger.
“You complete 5,000 meter exchanges, the bills are higher and customers immediately feel that something is not right,” says Williamson. “There was never enough communication on the front end. That ends up in customers overloading the customer service line. No one gets a response, because there are so many calls coming in. When that happens, it creates a firestorm.”
The truth is, some utilities are simply better at public relations than are others. Marketing has often been a challenge for many water utilities across the country.
And that doesn’t change when these utilities are taking on large rollouts of AMR/AMI technology.
Many municipal utility officials are familiar with selling their projects to city and village board members. They need to market to these elected officials if they’re going to gain funding for their projects.
But many utility officials rarely have to sell their services to the public. Most consumers pay their water bills every month without thinking too much about the technology that makes clean, healthy water pour out of their faucet every day.
So when utilities do have to promote large installations of automated metering systems to their customers, they sometimes struggle.
Hanes says, “There are some utilities that handle public relations better than others, and customer outreach is something that everyone can do a little bit better. Communicating the benefits upfront so that homeowners know why their utilities are making the switch remains the key to a successful rollout of AMR or AMI systems.”
If utilities don’t communicate, homeowners will take to social media to express their anger. And that can give municipal utilities a negative reputation in a short amount of time.
“If utilities aren’t providing an open line of communication, their customers will be in the dark. With the Internet, with blogs, angry customers will communicate with others if their utilities are not communicating with them,” says Hanes.
If utilities have done their advance public-relations work, their next step to ensuring a successful large-scale AMR/AMI rollout lies in targeting the right neighborhoods of their coverage areas to first introduce their new meters.
Daigle recommends that utilities start by installing the new meters in commercial and industrial areas. These customers are high-usage customers, and it’s important to accurately measure their water consumption as quickly as possible. These high-use facilities can provide utilities with a larger amount of new revenue from previously uncounted water consumption.
Daigle recommends that utilities then move to residential neighborhoods filled with a greater percentage of homeowners who either support the idea of a more accurate water system or are known as early adopters of technology. This way, utilities can generate positive press from users before they roll out their systems to those homeowners who are more likely to resist the change to AMR/AMI.
“There is often a real resistance to automated systems,” says Daigle. “Some customers worry that they’ll have to pay more for their commodity because the meters will be more accurate. Others worry that their local government will be watching them. There is definitely a group of people worried about privacy issues. If you can gain some momentum in communities that are higher adopters, you can more easily spread your message about the benefits that these systems will bring. If consumers can see the benefits, you’ll have them on board.”
Bennett says that his utility relied on a sustained customer-notification program to make sure that every end user, whether a commercial or residential customer, was aware that meters would be changing.
The program started with water utility officials speaking about the upgrade to AMR/AMI to neighborhood groups. The utility then sent a letter to their customers stating that contractors would be in their neighborhoods installing new meters. The utility’s installation contractor then sent out postcards to utility customers that asked these customers to call to set up a time for workers to upgrade their meters.
If customers didn’t respond to this notice, contractor crews knocked on their doors. If no one answered, the crew members left notices on their front doors asking them again to set up an appointment for a meter change. If the contractors didn’t hear from these customers again, they sent out a final letter. This letter explained that customers did not have the option of ignoring the utility’s request to update their meters. The changeover was a requirement.
“That was a veiled threat of disconnecting their service,” says Bennett. “Fortunately, it never came to that. We never had to shut off anyone’s service.”
The efforts of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works may seem extreme. But Bennett says that the work was worth it. The utility was able to update its meter-reading systems without suffering from much negative publicity while doing it.
And Cincinnati was definitely an area that needed an upgrade to AMR/AMI. Many of the utility’s customers had their meters inside their homes. Bennett estimates that utility meter readers possessed about 35,000 keys to service-area homes and businesses so that they could enter these buildings to read meters when residents or owners weren’t on site.
Today, those keys, and the security and privacy issues that came with them, are gone.
“When we met with other utilities across the nation, they never heard of such a thing as having a key to a customer’s home,” says Bennett. “Cincinnati is a trusting town. But that system just was no longer workable. Access was always an issue.”
Training the Employees
Another key factor to a successful large-scale rollout of AMR/AMI systems? Utilities must also spend enough time training their employees on how the systems work and what benefits they bring.
Employees are often the face of the water utility as far as homeowners and business owners are concerned. If these employees, then, can’t explain the benefits of a system upgrade or aren’t trained to answer customers’ specific questions, it can lead to yet more negative public relations for utilities making a switch.
It’s important, too, for utilities to provide proper training to employees who are going to switch roles once the AMR/AMI upgrade is complete. Many employees, for instance, will go from working as meter readers to customer service or maintenance positions.
“Turning meter readers into meter-maintenance people is one of the biggest things that utilities often aren’t ready for after they make the switch to an AMR or AMI system,” says McCall. “And it’s so important to have customer service people on board before you announce the system upgrade. Because as soon as you announce it, the calls will start to come in. You need employees who are trained to respond to those calls and give your customers answers.”
Williamson says that most utility workers will embrace the change in technology because it makes their jobs easier. But workers will only support a change if utility managers keep them informed throughout the process, Williamson says.
The most important information that managers need to share? Whether utility workers will lose their jobs because of the switch to AMR/AMI technology.
In most cases, this doesn’t happen, Williamson says. Most utilities find that now that they have freed workers from the mundane task of reading meters, they can instead put them to work in more important areas.
In Cincinnati, Bennett says that many of his meter readers moved on to higher-level jobs with the utility, taking on customer service or billing positions. Some retired. And others moved on to other jobs within the city and outside of the water utility.
“Early on, there will be concern from workers that if they are meter readers they’ll lose their jobs,” says Williamson. “It’s up to the utility to ease their concerns and tell them that employees will be reclassified. You will be using these employees in other areas that are needed, everything from maintenance to customer service.”
Author’s Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.