AUTOMATING YOUR UTILITY METER READING PROCESS - THE 10 MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS - (FAQ'S)
by John Corey
Posted by Devtech
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.
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:
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 0.5 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:
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.
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.