Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Lisican showcases a handful of features to read in the April 2017 issue of Water & Wastes Digest.
AMI solution enhances customer service & promotes conservation at Illinois utility
Until recently, the Lake County (Ill.) Public Works Department was manually reading meters every 60 days and had little insight into its leaks and water usage patterns across its distribution system. The company had started a project to install an automated meter reading system, but knew it needed a solution that would allow customers to be billed on a regular schedule without the need to manually visit each meter location.
In addition to automating billing, due to its service territory spanning a large geographic region, the utility suspected significant savings could be realized by automating meter reading activities, allowing meter readers to drastically reduce drive times and miles driven.
The utility issued a request for proposals and conducted a comprehensive interview process to evaluate technology options, and determined that leveraging an Itron advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system would not only allow the utility to streamline its billing process, but also unlock opportunities for enhanced customer service, operational savings and conservation.
In addition to installing the AMI network, which included communication modules capturing hourly consumption data, the utility has leveraged Itron hosting and analytics to derive more value from the system.
Since completing installation in 2015, the utility has improved on the time it takes to gather reads and bill customers for water service from up to six days down to one. Additionally, having true usage data gathered on an hourly basis has allowed the customer service department to have more valuable interactions with customers. Customers also can view their personal usage data through an online portal, allowing them to adjust their usage to fit their personal spending and conservation goals.
Prior to the utility’s analytics usage, ongoing consumption from a customer typically meant there was a leak. Without the data to back up those claims, however, some customers would not believe the utility. Now, the utility is proactively reaching out to alert customers to possible leaks so they can take action, saving them money and conserving water.
Compared with the way it operated 10 years ago with three meter technicians and a supervisor, this transition has allowed the utility to adjust staffing, through retirements and natural attrition, to one meter technician and a supervisor. The utility also had been hiring a contractor to drive and walk to collect meter readings for billing, a cost it is now able to eliminate. The utility now has a reliable, predictable way to collect usage information automatically without having to send out meter technicians.
The same is true in the billing department. The utility has become more resourceful and proactive, moving from four full-time billing specialists and a supervisor to a single supervisor, one full-time billing specialist and one part-time billing specialist. In addition to spending the utility’s dollars more wisely, the work of department staff is more rewarding. The staff now has more positive interactions with customers, and helps them save money and conserve water.
Installing the system has been a win for the Lake County Public Works Department as well as for its customers. It is a project that the county board supported, highlighting it as a sustainability initiative.
Since beginning to use analytics for leak detection and customer service, utility personnel continue to realize new ways to leverage system data to improve operations and service. Utility customers now are able to leverage the customer portal to view personal usage data and take action without contacting the utility. The utility has begun customer outreach campaigns to inform customers about ways to conserve water, and they are seeing an increasing customer interest in conservation.
With new towns working to get water allocations, it is important that everyone uses water wisely. The key is having an abundance of data available to make more informed decisions and improve service to customers.