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Personally visiting more than 8,400 water meters several times a year proved to be a time-consuming and expensive practice for Watertown, Wis., a city located midway between Milwaukee and Madison. Having employees “walk the beat” every day was the only way to collect consumption data from the city’s 23,000 residents. In addition to the extensive time allocated for meter reading, read accuracy was being scrutinized, negatively affecting efficiency.
“We were receiving many customer complaints about accuracy,” said Paul Lange, Watertown water systems manager. “And accuracy wasn’t the only problem. Our meter readers were occasionally injured in confrontations with dogs or trying to scale fences to access yards. It was time to look for a new option.”
Lange and his staff evaluated several meter reading systems before selecting Galaxy, a fixed-network advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system from Badger Meter. The system uses high-powered meter endpoints in conjunction with network receivers to capture metering data remotely.
Nestled on the banks of the Rock River and surrounded by farms, Watertown boasts a strong commercial and industrial tax base, along with a mix of well-kept, single-family and multifamily homes. To address its water metering program, the city began replacing its meters in 2008 and currently has about 1,500 units converted. Lange said he hopes to have all residential and commercial meters changed over within the next three to four years.
“Everyone wishes we were there right now,” Lange said of the changeover. “The information we’re receiving from the Galaxy system and the overall time savings are making us more efficient.”
The previous meter reading and billing program could be described as anything but efficient. One employee’s sole job was walking the streets and manually reading meters. Each day, his goal was to read about 400 meters and input consumption data into a handheld device. The collected data was later downloaded for analysis at the water department.
“He’s in good shape,” said Lori Bachler, Watertown billing clerk, joking about the exercise the meter reader received on a daily basis. “He read every single day. Snow, sleet, rain—he was out there.”
To expedite the process, the city was divided into two billing cycles. After two weeks of collecting reads, Bachler would download the data, print it and spend up to a week handling billing. She manually compared each home’s consumption level with its readings from past months to ensure the numbers correlated, and then generated the water bills. If a home’s readings showed wide variation from month to month, Bachler alerted the homeowner about a possible water leak via a letter.
Errors in data input also were a problem from time to time. According to Bachler, occasionally the meters did not properly “click” to the numbers reflecting actual consumption. Other times, the indicator would be located between numbers, leaving the meter reader to interpret the data. Furthermore, manually inputting hundreds of reads each day into the handheld device led to sporadic inaccuracies.
Although just a portion of the city is now outfitted with the Galaxy system, Bachler said errors have declined in those areas. Not only has the new AMI system improved read accuracy, but it also has optimized processes throughout the water department. The Galaxy solution outfits each meter with a high-powered transmitter that sends data to two repeaters strategically located throughout Watertown, and then onto the city water utility for analysis and reading. The infrastructure provides city workers with instant access to up-to-date consumption data, which streamlines the billing process and helps the department be more lean and efficient. Instant access to consumption data also helps personnel answer questions and resolve billing disputes when they arise, thereby improving customer service.
“The Galaxy system provides us with a report every day for each user itemizing their consumption,” Lange said. “If someone questions their water usage, we can review the data and answer their questions. The report also alerts us to potential leaks. In fact, we have already notified customers about this issue.”
Better Resource Utilization
Thanks to the system, the city is utilizing manpower more efficiently as well. Because data is sent electronically from the transmitter directly to the water utility, employees no longer need to collect information by manually reading meters or performing drivebys. As a result, the city has reduced its labor and vehicle costs.
Once fully operational, the Galaxy system will capture data four times a day from every meter. This additional data will provide the city with a clearer picture of residential water usage, show potential discrepancies or leaks in the system and reduce unaccounted for “lost” water. Overall, Lange is pleased with performance and operational efficiencies the city is realizing from its new network.
“This solution from Badger Meter has worked out very well for the city of Watertown,” Lange said. “Their technology is making things easier for us and giving the city new tools to deal with customers on a daily basis.”