Assessing the benefits of vendor-managed AMI networks
Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems can provide water utilities with numerous benefits, including increased operational efficiency, improved customer service and reduced water loss.
One AMI network approach that is gaining ground among water districts throughout the U.S. is vendor hosting and management. The list of municipalities has recently grown to include the city of Weatherford, Okla.
Enhancing Network Performance
Network monitoring is an advantage of vendor-managed services that helps strengthen AMI performance and reliability. In order to effectively manage their own AMI networks and server environments, utilities often need employees with multiple skill sets, such as highly specialized IT infrastructure engineers, database administrators and metering network specialists. Utilities’ IT infrastructure engineers are usually tasked with installing necessary AMI software and conducting server maintenance and repair projects; metering network specialists typically focus on making sure the AMI network and its components are running smoothly and delivering all of the critical metering data necessary for the utility to accurately account for all of the water its customers are using.
Essentially, managed hosting and monitoring services shift the bulk of day-to-day tasks associated with AMI network management from the utility to the vendor. Many vendors have their own metering network specialists who focus exclusively on monitoring customers’ AMI networks to make sure that all components and metering devices are properly functioning and transmitting data. They also focus on identifying and mitigating potential network impediments that may be responsible for preventing the delivery of data.
For example, if an AMI specialist notices that a customer’s AMI network is down, it could inform the utility and temporarily reroute meters in the area to different collector devices until a field worker is dispatched to make necessary repairs. If the specialist notices that the network is not receiving scheduled data transmissions from a particular meter, it could troubleshoot the problem by sending a signal to the meter through the network, requesting an on-demand reading. Analysis of the reading could help determine the meter’s signal strength or the need to send a field worker to inspect if the meter or radio transmitter has been tampered with.
Case in Point
The Weatherford water department knew that its water system had become outdated, as the 5,500 meters in its service area had been installed 20 to 40 years ago. Many of the meters were not reading accurately, so the department frequently received complaints and questions from customers regarding their water usage. The department also was spending a substantial amount of time manually collecting meter readings (one to two days each week) and tending to service-related issues. To resolve these issues, it opted to replace all of its water meters and implemented a two-way AMI network that was hosted and supported by Mueller Co. to help improve customer service, conservation and operational efficiency.
The water department now collects monthly readings from all of its water meters in less than one day (from the office), and receives alerts through the system and from the vendor whenever its meters show abnormally high readings. Once these alerts are received, the department can inform the customer that they may have a household water leak, or if necessary, dispatch a field crew to investigate the issue. Customers also can monitor their household water consumption through the network’s consumer portal, which also is hosted by the vendor to help ensure quick and reliable access to usage data.
“With a two-way AMI system in place, we’re now able to collect all of our meter readings in as little as one day,” said Mike Brown, mayor of Weatherford. “The streamlined meter reading process, coupled with network monitoring services provided by our vendor, essentially enable our water department to work smarter—not harder. The AMI network presents water department personnel with a centralized view of the water system, and the monitoring services provide a significant time savings that allows them to focus on other important improvement projects.”
Similar to the way vendors’ network specialists constantly monitor customers’ AMI networks, IT infrastructure engineers at the data centers the vendors partner with monitor the server environment 24/7 and troubleshoot and address any IT issues as they occur. In addition, these professionals work in tandem with the vendors’ metering network specialists to implement additional AMI applications, including necessary software installations and upgrades.
Increased Time & Cost Savings
By having AMI vendors perform the network hosting and monitoring, utilities can experience significant time and cost savings, which they likely would not see if they managed and hosted their own AMI networks.
In conclusion, utilities can enhance their AMI systems by using network hosting and monitoring services offered by their vendors. By deferring to the vendor, they can improve cost savings as well as network performance and reliability while spending more time focusing on other water system improvement projects instead of constantly monitoring their distribution networks.