As AMI rollouts continue, more and more utilities are experiencing great success by focusing on proper installation and education.
By David Engle
Despite some setbacks and challenges, every year hundreds of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) networks are smoothly and efficiently deployed. Better still, they’re now delivering exceptional benefits for water services and ratepayers alike.
When a utility makes the choice to move forward with a large-scale AMI or automated meter reading (AMR) installation, there are two primary challenges that utility can expect to face: installation and data handling.
Installation is often subcontracted to third-party firms that are charged with overseeing the deployment of the smart metering system. Part of the process involves insuring that the company or contractor responsible for the project’s implementation is staffed with competent and experienced staff, minimizing potential for improper installation, mix-ups, and other prospective problems.
Data integration and management is another challenge currently faced by many utilities that undertaken large-scale AMI/AMR adoption. As data and actionable intelligence increases, office staff can sometimes find themselves unprepared to fully capitalize on the opportunities provided by this advanced technology. This can be particularly difficult when customers begin to receive their first set of AMI/AMR based bills.
That because, more often than not, higher bills follow meter changeouts. This is due, in part, to the replacement of worn-out and inaccurate devices with modern and more technologically advanced components that are capable of higher-volume measurements, and increased net revenues are the frequent result. Leaks and losses also become detectable and, thus, billable.
Start Slowly and Proceed With Caution
Beginning about a decade ago, in city after city, radio-equipped water smart meters and AMR/AMI to read them were being deployed at a break-neck pace. Then, just as the housing bubble era burst, installations accelerated in 2009–2011, as Recovery Act funding kicked-in. Some sources estimate that up to 30% of the nation’s water meters suddenly became readable by wireless transmission.
As you can imagine, not every installation went smoothly, though the causes of hiccups and setbacks were varied and unpredictable. Sometimes, simply moving too quickly caused the growing pains.
For example, Scott Williamson, CEO of Capstone Metering, points to the Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA) as a main factor in hastily deployed AMI installations. As Williamson explains, under the ARRA, public works projects that were fully designed, blueprinted, and ready to go were green-lighted with federal dollars in support. This high-readiness funding qualification effectively prioritized smart meters and AMI, pushing them ahead of other water infrastructure projects.
Williamson believes it’s possible that during these deployments, some of the AMI components utilized were still in their break-in and tryout phase. Why the risk? “The industry pressed technologies into the field that maybe were not ready and were half-baked, as far as AMI. A significant amount of failure today may be based on that push” to cash-in on Stimulus Money.
Project cost overruns were also common, Williamson adds, noting that for agencies still clinging to old technologies, any setback seems like to justify their fear that “any new system they buy is just not going to work.”
Customization is Key
The largest AMR/AMI player, measured by product deliveries over the years, is now Aclara, whose Star Network division is based in Solon, OH. Aclara’s David Steidtmann attributes the firm’s leading status, in some measure, to its historical assimilation of formerly independent firms that provided metering and data management for electric, gas, and water utilities.
Steidtmann readily concedes that utilities in general face challenges in transitioning to AMI—“a very complicated thing,” he calls it. A beast with a lot of moving parts.” Although many installations go smoothly and yield exemplary results, implementation problems do arise, says Steidtmann, who was formerly a product manager at Aclara for five and a half years before being named director of marketing communications.
Steidtmann continues by noting that what’s most critical for industry vendors to realize is that each of the nation’s thousands of water department is unique. Hence, each needs a truly customized design. System engineers will surely run into trouble if they blithely follow a simplistic, template-driven, “one-size-fits-all” approach, he says. This was especially true in early AMI designs for electric utilities, from which Aclara gleaned invaluable lessons.
“We have since developed a process of being very deliberate and careful about understanding as much as we can about the specific environment [prior to installation],” he says.
A major element here involves realistic customer expectations. Just as every water system is unique, so, too, are the perceptions of each individual who participates in the AMI enterprise, both on the client and vendor sides alike. So, for example, rather than dialoging in nebulous terms about “billing data” or “leak detection”, or other AMI features, he says, it’s crucial to prepare each involved participant “with an accurate and specific understanding of how AMI works”, and what it does or does not do over time and under varying conditions.
Moreover, these clarifying discussions must continue over several years, he says. AMI implementation itself often takes two, three, or more years to complete. Over this time, staffing may be reshuffled, and technologies and product features evolve. Personal expectations must, thus, be reset periodically.
“You’re sort of constantly in a feedback loop with the utility,” says Steidtmann, and vendors need to emphasize education and knowledge transfer for them. For example, the agency’s business office staff will typically face an adjustment period once AMI is turned on, and the increased volumes of data are generated at a level equal to “with the same amount coming in just one month that they used to get in 15 years. . . . They will need to use a sophisticated, comprehensive set of data processing tools, data storage tools, and meter data management and analytics tools,” he says.
Aclara’s solution to such challenging change-management has been to develop high-level managers “responsible for handling the program from beginning to end, over the long haul.” This role “serves as a powerful customer-advocate for both high-level concepts and practical nuts and bolts installation issues,” he adds.
Working Out The Kinks
Late in 2012, Aclara extended this comprehensive strategy by introducing the concept of “tiger teams.” They’re described by an Aclara senior vice president appointed to head them, Karen Flathers, as “more regimented, integrated services and support teams . . . for the specific technology and customers” as they undergo AMI. Staffed with both vendor and client participants, their mission, she says, “Basically is to knock through problems,” first in the preparation and deployment, then transitioning to operations—to a problem-solving and troubleshooting support phase.
Not only do these “super support” teams come to bear during the break-in phase (lasting one, two or up to several years), but the role remains in place over the system’s full life, she adds.
To illustrate: A recent team engagement began by doing an in-depth analysis of some early-phase problems. The good news here is that a newly launched AMI data torrent actually aids nicely in troubleshooting. Even if the meter-reading system only brings in, say, 85% of the endpoint, “it is still capturing a lot of data,” notes Flathers, and close study of it “will make it fairly easy to break down what’s going wrong with the missing 15%.”
In this particular instance, meter-reading failures were further broken down into three rather equal-sized categories. One-third consisted of technical problems—e.g., “interference on the frequencies, data collectors not operating at full capacity, not enough network redundancy, and ‘holes’ resulting due to obstructing structures,” she says, or other such issues. In this case, the solution was to install five more data collectors and relocate two others that were shadowed by buildings. By week’s end, the system’s overall performance theoretically had improved about 5%.
A second chunk of problems stemmed from endpoints not reporting, due, most probably, to faulty installation or impediments nearby. Flather’s team compiled a list. “We then went out and visited about 300 sites and found that, indeed, a great majority were installation issues or site alteration issues,” she recalls.
A final third were classifiable as “back office IT and software” problems. “The data wasn’t passing correctly from the system to the CIS and customer portal,” she says. The team again devised a solution.
As of early 2013, Flather’s group had gone through this exercise about a half dozen times in various places, since the group’s inception a few months earlier. So far, they’re finding that the proportions of the three respective problem-areas remain fairly consistent.
Flathers sums up: “What people need to realize about these systems is they’re kind of a living, breathing thing. You don’t just put them in and expect them to keep going on their own. You have to monitor them daily. MTUs [meter transmission units] fail . . . new frequencies come in and start causing interference. . . . You have to make adjustments. So, we’ve put in place a system that checks the network’s health and does continuous system monitoring.
“There’s no ‘silver bullet.’ It’s hard work. It’s doing a detailed plan, hashing it out, fighting it out, talking about it every week, and holding each other accountable to advancing the plan.”
“Smoothest Thing in My Career”
One example of an early AMI deployment that’s still going strong, we turn to the Pacific Northwest and the case of the Bend Water Division. In 2010, the City of Bend, OR, whose water division services 23,500 customers, decided to embark on a citywide AMI meter implementation. Faced with the usual challenges, Water Division program technician Spencer Cashwell recounts that, in the end, the project turned out so easily, and it’s ongoing performance continues to be so problem-free, that the city never regretted its decision.
To start with, when the Division began its citywide AMI and meter implementation, the team anticipated “hearing from a fair batch of folks who’d read all the negative stories about bills going through the roof and system failures, and would voice their concerns,” recalls Cashwell.
“We kind of prepared for that, more so on the electromagnetic radiation that might be coming out of this little box in front yard, and on the ‘Are the meters really accurate?’ kinds of phone calls.
“But, really,” he continues, “we never got them.” A tiny number, fewer than a half a dozen, phoned in, and, following a short, well-prepared discussion, “we got them tuned-up and pretty happy with the idea that it wasn’t going to hurt them. We explained how the readings were captured and transmitted, and they were okay with it. So, really, it became a non-issue for us.”
What about technical hurdles with radio signals over the region’s hilly terrain?
“Actually, that worked out really well for us,” he continues. The network turned out to be one of the things he likes most about the system, because it was designed with so much reliability. The vendor, Aclara, installed “a lot of little, small, inexpensive data collectors. We had 45 in a town of 80,000 people and roughly 32 square miles.”
By comparison, other systems would likely have used only two or three collectors, a number he considers inadequate. He exalts that, with his nearly four dozen data collectors working, “it’s just been wonderful for us, because it’s amazingly redundant. Basically, most of our meters are touching at least five or six of those data collectors. So, any problems with them are pretty much not even noticed,” he says, adding that, after about three years of operation, “there haven’t even been many problems to begin with.”
Wasn’t there a huge flood of data going back to the business office, and wasn’t it tough to cope with?
“It was nothing like that,” he replies. “It was exceptionally smooth. I was very impressed, and still am impressed. We’ve had wonderful [success] with it, and nothing else.”
The city’s motivation for AMI stemmed primarily from a desire to provide backflow detection for both commercial and residential customers. The City of Bend is one of the few places in Oregon doing this, and the results could serve as a model for others.
Money to pay for the system was no problem, either, as funding one phase came entirely from ARRA, and this was complement with funding that had already been budgeted for meter upgrades.
Technically, the hardware integration itself came with the greatest of ease, too. “We simply cut out old drive-by radios and cut in new meters in about 14,000 locations,” says Cashwell. This is roughly half the customer sites, in a three-month period in the spring of 2010. The remaining roughly equal number of meters are still read manually, but are being selectively replaced, too.
All in all, he goes on, “At the field level, things went way better than we expected—everything from the location of the data collectors, to actually getting these units in the ground and programmed up. Everything with Aclara is just kind of brilliantly simple,” he says.
After installation, testing of radio signals was done to make sure they could penetrate a number of meter pits covered by metal lids; readings came in more-or-less flawlessly.
Wasn’t he concerned about signal difficulties from mountains and such?
“I’d heard those same stories,” he replies, “and I’ve also had a lot of folks calling me, sniffing around with similar concerns” and asking about his agency’s implementation experience; he has nothing but good news to tell them.
Cashwell’s sole disappointment had nothing to do with AMI, but with a still-ongoing rash of several thousand meter failures from batches installed during an earlier implementation, around the year 2003, for drive-by meter reading. “Registers for those are failing on [one particular brand] we had in the ground, that had a bad couple of years with the seal on their register,” he says. “They’ll actually draw moisture in.” The meters also had a “warranty that omitted coverage of labor, but the manufacturer stepped up and offered warranty service anyway, for something that was out of warranty,” he adds.
The city’s newly installed Aclara system uses encoded registers: “If the MTU goes down and can’t read some of the numbers, it will indicate [via the AMI] that it communicated, but it had bad digits that it couldn’t read. So that’s kind of a self-diagnosed problem.
“With AMI you have much quicker reporting of meter-read failures, and because of the encoded technology and the way it reads, you almost have a diagnostic factor built in, if its reading failed”—handy info to have before you send a tech out to inspect it.
He sums up: “You can almost use the AMI system now to diagnose most of [the failures] he says. We catch a visual read, replace the register, and we’re back in action.”
Author’s Bio: David Engle is a frequent contributor to Forester Media publications.