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Most water utilities that were early adopters of automatic meter reading (AMR) technology are now fretting about battery replacement. But it wasn't the batteries that went kaput for the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), a utility providing 55 mgd for nearly 400,000 people in the Hartford, Conn., area. MDC's metering system relied on a specific telephone service provider: AT&T. When competitive phone carriers infiltrated the utility's operating territory, AMR units quit dialing in.
"It's not that our AMR devices were broken," said Harvey Wall, assistant manager of operations for MDC and the project leader for this utility's AMR replacement. But, MDC has about 95,000 meters, and of those, 80,000 endpoints are tied into the utility via the AT&T network. When competitive phone carriers became popular in the area, they hit MDC's meter-reading capability hard.
"We have 30,000 units that we think don't work anymore," Wall explained. Asked how MDC is getting reads off those endpoints, Wall was quick to quip: "We don't."
There is truth to his jest, though. Only 11,500 of the utility's 95,000 meters are outside in meter pits. The rest are inside, and as Wall said, "Very few people are home during the day anymore, so getting inside is pretty difficult." That left MDC with the option of estimating consumption or having customers read the meters themselves.
Once per month on weekends when people are more likely to be home, the utility sends crews out to the routes with the highest percentages of estimates to gather catch-up reads that accurately reflect consumption. As many utilities have discovered, catch-up readings bring customer complaints.
"If we've estimated low and suddenly customers owe us money, they call to complain that we didn’t catch the discrepancy sooner," Wall said. "If we estimated high and we owe the customers money, they call asking when the check will be in the mail."
Wall recently reviewed 100 call-center complaints and found that 98 of them were related to the estimated meter readers. To combat the problem, the utility is moving to a mobile radio frequency system that can be read by touch-read, walk-by or drive-by receivers. Meter-reading units come from Northrop Grumman, and transmission devices are now supplied by Blue Tower Communications.
MDC's second AMR project has presented some tough breaks and hard lessons, but Wall is happy to share what he's learned. Among the counsel he offers:
Start small. MDC tried out its AMR equipment, which was originally supplied by Ramar, then slowly began deployment, and the caution paid off.
"The technology we used in the pilot was fine, but then Ramar tried to improve the product, and almost all of the newer units started to fail," Wall said.
He credits Ramar with responsiveness and integrity to solve the problem, but Ramar's manufacturing issue caused a problem for the utility: getting into customers' houses once again.
"It's a good thing this happened early on with just a few hundred units, not thousands," Wall said. He added that Blue Tower Communications, the company that bought Ramar, now supplies MDC with an even better product than what was originally selected.
Stay flexible. MDC chose a very versatile handheld computer from Northrop Grumman to handle its transition phase from telephone to RF meter reading. The units can pick up signals on meters that have been converted to the RF technology, and they can also handle manual and touch-read processes.
"Until we get a route completely converted, we have the readers use these handhelds so they can handle multiple technologies," Wall said. "Once we have a route completely converted, we'll switch to drive-by AMR."
Make vendors handle the interface. Wall reports that the biggest stumbling block MDC encountered with its latest AMR deployment was integrating meter data with the utility’s SAP software.
According to Wall, MDC managers went into the project thinking all they needed was a distinctive meter reading number provided in a flat file-a file without a structured relationship between data records—and some sort of coding device to tell where the signal was coming from. That specification turned out to be unworkable with the SAP billing system.
"If I did this again, I would tell the vendor we had SAP software, and it was their responsibility to make the AMR system work with SAP," Wall said.
Ultimately, it took MDC a year to replace defective units and work out the bugs in the meter-data interface. So far, the utility has converted about 6,000 endpoints to AMR, but the final target is 95,000 units. Now, the utility is ready for rapid deployment. MDC signed up National Metering to handle installations, and Wall expects to complete between 20,000 and 30,000 installs in 2006.