AMR technologies offer gigantic improvements in staff productivity, customer service, and systemwide monitoring capability.
Available technologies are rapidly outdating the practice of collecting water meter readings using human effort as the primary means. Water utilities that have adopted automated meter reading (AMR) are also using these technologies to realize potential beyond completing this routine task by exponentially improving their efficiency, delivering a significantly higher level of customer service, and monitoring their main water supply in ways managers could not even imagine previously.
A fairly simple, repetitive task—such as collecting data from a utility’s water meters—lends itself to automation. One might categorize AMR adoption in three stages, in order of decreasing level of human intervention and increasing level of sophistication and capital investment:
Automated walk-around data collection. Ratepayers’ meters are equipped to transmit readings to handheld collection devices. The data are later downloaded to a central data-processing/billing system.
Mobile (i.e., vehicular) data collection. Same as above, except that the data collection units are located in vehicles, making meter reading a much faster process. Route-management software is also available.
Fixed-network data collection. No human intervention is necessary for actual meter reading because meter readings are automatically transmitted to fixed collection points throughout the network and then transmitted to a central data-collection point. More advanced technologies are being developed that allow for robust system monitoring in addition to meter reading and may be a logical outgrowth of investing in a fixed network.
The experiences of two utility managers interviewed by Water Efficiency—who are at stage two and three of implementing the technology, respectively—indicate not only the expandability potential inherent in many AMR systems but also the utility manager’s ability to gradually deploy more and more powerful systems.
Job One: Automated Meter Reading Productivity
The Consolidated Utility District (CUD) of Rutherford County in Murfreesboro, TN, is in the relatively early stage of AMR adoption where the goal is to improve the productivity of conventional walk-around data collection. William F. Dunnill, P.E., assistant general manager for the CUD, has seen a dramatic positive impact on the productivity of meter reading and the safety of this task using AMR technology. Many of the district’s 37,000 customers are spread out in rural areas, increasing the utility’s challenges in the areas of productivity and meter reader safety. A phased implementation of a mobile AMR solution has made a dramatic difference among much of the utility’s service region.
“We looked at AMR for a number of reasons; one was productivity,” says Dunnill. “How could we read the meters faster? Another issue was safety from the standpoint that a lot of our routes are rural, a lot of heavily traveled roads, but they’re relatively narrow. There wasn’t a good spot for a meter reader to pull off and get out and read a meter.
“As far as traffic safety, we’ve had several accidents with meter readers who were literally off the road and somebody came around the corner and rear-ended a parked truck,” he continues. “We had one meter reader who had just stepped out of the vehicle and got hit. If she hadn’t been half in and half out of the vehicle, there’s no question she would have been severely injured. Traffic is one issue; another is climbing fences in these rural areas where meter readers have very limited access, and you’ve got guys out there climbing fences and going through brush and wood to get where the meters are located.”
Previously, notes Dunnill, the CUD would send out eight individuals per meter reading cycle, and each one required about six hours to complete a route. Since the CUD implemented a Badger Meter radio frequency (RF) AMR system, it takes one individual about four hours to read every one of the ratepayers’ meters.
The CUD equipped its ratepayers’ meters with devices that emit radio signals every few seconds to an RF receiver antenna connected to a dedicated laptop computer via a serial port. The computer is also equipped with geographic information system/mapping software showing all of the meters to be read on a given route. The RF receiver antenna collects the data transmitted by all of the meters on the route. Meter readers return to the office and download the data from the laptop into the CUD’s billing system.
Interestingly, the improved productivity that the system provides also helped Dunnill and the CUD phase in meter upgrades in stages. “We laid out all of the routes for the meter readers and asked which ones were most dangerous—which ones would you like to see completed first? It almost corresponded entirely with productivity; in these areas where they had to climb fences and there were long distances between meters, which were our least productive—these were the routes that our readers found most difficult to read.”
The utility used a third-party contractor to install the new meters in the first four phases (cycles). “Once that was done, it gave me eight men four days a month to install more meters with,” Dunnill says. “We’ve got 11,000 in now and we’ll probably do another 26,000 in 2007 and we’ll be able to complete that with essentially internal staff.”
Dunnill reports that one of the most obvious benefits from implementing AMR technology has been the accuracy of data collection. “We may have a handful of rereads the following day, and those rereads are for high consumption,” he says. “When we send the reader back out, the reading is correct; it’s a leak or something, but we have found no misreads in the 12 months since these have been operational.
“[The old manual reading method] was requiring a large number of rereads and many of those were just from meter reader errors. We don’t have that anymore—our rereads have gone to virtually none and those that we do reread for high consumption turn out to be correct. Instead of having one man tied up for a portion of his day [doing rereads], it’s gone to essentially no rereads the following day. We’ve also run into the situation since we got the system in place where areas that have flooded or gotten snow—for whatever reason the meter was not accessible—we still drive by that meter. We don’t have to come back the next day and reread those meters because they’re taken care of.”
The fact that the system records radio signals every few seconds and stores the data for two years also provides the CUD with data-logging capability that is vastly improving its customer service and resolving billing disputes, Dunnill notes. “We’ve got data logging with these meters, which is something we wanted up front but wasn’t critical,” he says. “Since we’ve gotten it, it’s become critical. When a customer calls us about a high bill complaint and there’s no way he used that much water, we can go out, pull his data history, and show his consumption every hour. We can actually estimate to within a couple of minutes when he actually turned on a faucet, or if he’s let his run for a certain period of time, we can tell him when he turned that faucet on and turned it off. From the standpoint of high bill complaints, to the customers it’s been a great addition because we’ve got data to back up what we’re actually billing.”
A meter equipped with an AMR system.
The meter transponders also send a leak code to the RF receiver when zero water consumption is recorded for 24 hours. Dunnill reports that the zero-consumption recording almost always indicates that the ratepayer’s system has a leak. Notes Dunnill, “In the case of a customer who’s got a toilet leak or they’ve got a problem inside their house, we can literally show that a toilet valve’s filling every so often; we can actually go back and log it by the minute.
“Plus, the meters give us a leak indicator; anytime the meter goes for 24 hours without zero consumption for an hour, it’ll tell us that there’s a leak in that location. For a toilet that’s leaking, maybe a gallon an hour, when we come by and read his meter, we can call him and say, ‘We think we’ve got a problem at your house’; it may not be significant on his bill, but we can see it long before he realizes he’s got a toilet leak.”
Having gone through the buying process, Dunnill has preferences for available technology. “We asked for a list of customers; one of the things I would ask for from those customers is the failure rate,” he says. “I would want to know how many of those units have failed. I think you need to look at the lifespan of the [meter interface] unit. A lot of meters have a longer lifespan than the unit.
“If I’m going to go through the trouble of putting in an AMR system, I’d seriously consider data logging,” advises Dunnill. “For the few dollars more that it costs for data logging, I don’t think I’d turn it down. The people who really like our data logging are in customer service. They’re the front line of response for bill collection—they can discuss water consumption intelligently with customers instead of just saying, ‘Well, that’s what our meter said; you’ve just got to accept it’. I think the customers are impressed. They know that when we go out and read meters, it’s not just a guess once a month.’
The Data-Rich Get Richer Data
In the western United States, particularly California—the most populous state—water conservation is a high priority. It’s no coincidence that the Cucamonga Valley Water District and Customer Service Officer Darron Poulsen are continually expanding AMR technology and leveraging the power of information to partner with ratepayers in conservation. Poulsen and managers in the district—which is located about 45 miles east of Los Angeles and consists of about 200,000 customers and 15,000 connections—have enjoyed such productivity gains with AMR technology that they have invested in a fixed network and are yielding increasingly powerful, useful information as a result.
Improving meter reader productivity initially motivated the district to adopt handheld meter reading back in 2000, Poulsen reports. “The reason we made those moves originally was that the community was growing so quickly—150 homes a month—and it was getting tough; we were going to have to hire more staff” or implement AMR technology.
Over the next several months, the utility enjoyed tremendous gains in productivity with a handheld data collection system, but the service area that includes all or parts of Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Ontario, and Upland kept growing. “The thought was, if a person walking a route could read 100 meters a day, we figured that with a mobile solution, we could read 600 to 800 meters a day,” Poulsen points out. So the district upgraded its AMR technology to a mobile solution.
Poulsen witnessed a tremendous increase in meter-reading productivity with the mobile solution for about four years. After hearing about fixed networks for meter reading, he started investigating this type of solution from Itron, the mobile AMR provider that would make the district’s AMR system more robust in two ways.
“We were one of the first companies to install a fixed network,” he says. “With the fixed network, we moved away from efficiency and productivity—this has both of those—but the selling point to our board was certainly based on improved customer service, plus a tool to help us with conservation, which has become one of our most important points of interest.
“The fixed network really moves us into a whole new venue on how water companies work,” he adds. “The mobile technology of driving around and getting a read really provided no more information than when we were walking around. Now we’re getting much more data to help us with conservation to be able to help us understand customers.”
The upgraded system utilizes meter interface units that connect to the water meters and transmit readings to several receiver-transmitters deployed in fixed locations throughout the service area. Poulsen notes that the strength of the signals transmitted by the upgraded radio units is almost 1,000 times more powerful than the signals transmitted within the previously used mobile collection system. The receiver-transmitters receive six signals every day from each meter in the system and, in turn, send cellular data (the data can also be sent via Ethernet or radio) to a dedicated Web site hosted by the technology provider. Poulsen notes that the hosted Web site is a temporary arrangement that is being used until the district sets up its own internal IP address.
The data-logging capability that is made possible by the multitude of signals transmitted within the system gives management access to powerful data that help the district provide ratepayers with key data that aid conservation efforts. Poulsen is also helping develop software that will make even more powerful querying possible.
“All of the agencies in southern California, a good portion of us, really require some kind of imported water to supplement our natural groundwater supply; in the summertime, we have to use about 60% imported water from northern California,” notes Poulsen. “And that water’s really costly. Yes, we’re ‘green’ here in California, but it’s really because the commodity we’re dealing with is in high demand because growth is high and it’s in short supply.”
AMR systems report hour-by-hour water use.
The district and Poulsen have begun a serious foray into benchmarking water use for customers, courtesy of a consultant who calculated averages for several residential classifications within the district. “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, noting high summertime water use for landscaping among some ratepayers. “I have some very large, affluent homes in Rancho Cucamonga, and in the summertime, it’s not unusual for them to see a $500 bill.”
Like the Consolidated Utility District in Tennessee, the Cucamonga Valley Water District has been able to phase in its latest AMR upgrade gradually. Over the past couple of years, the district has implemented an exchange program to upgrade the meters to be compatible with the fixed network infrastructure.
And the leap in technological capability is not limited to ratepayer data. Poulsen reports that the utility is moving forward with advanced monitoring capability. He is working with the technology provider on a solution that will detect leaks in ratepayers’ water service lines using sonic technology.
“This fixed network moves from being just a meter-reading technology to being 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 data indicating usage within the main water supply. “This fixed network takes us into a whole new range of abilities to be able to utilize that tool for much more than reading meters and conservation; it turns into a bunch of things. The new fixed network that we have now, besides sending a signal out every four hours, will also send back 24-hour incremental data. That data allows me to get a snapshot of water consumption from midnight to midnight. Now I have on-the-hour reads, and I take that consumption data and reservoir droppings and get basically 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.”
Below is a list of AMR technology providers. Visit the company’s Web site for more information.
AMCO Water Metering Systems Inc., www.amcowater.com
Badger Meter Inc., www.badgermeter.com
Master Meter, Inc., www.mastermeter.com
Neptune Technology Group Inc., www.neptunetg.com
Performance Meter Inc., www.performancemeter.com
Sensus Metering Systems, www.sensus.com
Don Talend specializes in covering sustainability, technology, and innovation.