"The Orion AMR system  looked like an excellent system to all of us, but we wanted to make sure," said city of Aiken Director of Finance and Information Management Anita Lilly.
Water for the community comes from Shaws Creek, Shiloh Springs, and two wells that tap into the Tuscaloosa Aquifer. Residents and businesses use about 7.8 million gallons every day.
Pilot project launched
Lilly and Assistant Finance Director Kim Abney headed up the pilot project and soon 600 of Aiken’s Badger meters had been modified to accept the AMR systems’ radio frequency transmitter.
“Except for some commercial accounts, almost all of our meters are in pits located near the street so in most cases we didn’t have to make arrangements with homeowners to gain access,” Abney said.
“There were some glitches during the pilot,” Lilly recalled, “but Badger Meter always backed up the product and ironed out difficulties as they arose. For example, we had a software issue with the new system, but Badger sent specialists to troubleshoot it and they solved the problem very quickly.”
Impressed by the Orion system’s performance, in August 2003, a decision was made by the city council, city manager, and mayor to retrofit all 17,500 of Aiken’s meters with the new AMR transmitters.
Badger Meter coordinated the installation, hiring Utility Partners of America (UPA) to do the work.
“UPA did an excellent job,” said National Account Manager Dave Tuholski. “They started in October, 2003, and by the middle of April, 2004, the project was complete.”
One major installation challenge was finding meters in commercial locations, such as shopping malls.
“Many of these meters were installed indoors and they were in some pretty out-of-the-way places, including above false ceilings,” Lilly recalled.
Laptop and GPS
Reading the Orion-equipped meters is accomplished using a Panasonic Toughbook laptop.
“The laptop is a durable and portable unit that worked very well for us,” Abney said. Aiken also purchased the Orion Global Positioning System (GPS), and UPA collected the latitude and longitude coordinates for every meter in the city.
“GPS is a great option that will make our work easier,” Abney continued. “We aren’t reading with it yet, but even now when our technicians are using the laptop, the GPS shows a map of each area on the screen and indicates with changing colors which meters have been read. If a meter has not been read, it’s easy to spot and we can go back and find out why.”
Abney added that GPS also makes it easy to find installed meters. “Some homeowners cover the pits with landscaping, so it’s not always obvious where the meter is,” she said. “GPS allows our personnel to get within a three-foot radius of the meter and then they can find it easily using a metal detector.”
Pits have to be located when AMR equipment is inadvertently damaged by lawnmowers or when homeowners tamper with the installation.
“We don’t get many, but some people open their meter boxes to see what work was done,” Lilly said. “We warn customers in our bills that the system is capable of detecting tampering and that any evidence of it will result in a $120 fine, but a few can’t resist. Fortunately, each time we perform a read, the system produces a report that flags meters that have been tampered with.”
Lilly said that one fine has been enough to dissuade customers from future tampering.
Fast payback predicted
City of Aiken officials believe the system will pay for itself quickly based on improved productivity.
“Using the laptop, one technician can read all 17,500 meters in less than 40 hours,” Lilly said. “Overall service and conservation have also improved because our people now have more time to notify customers of high usage and possible leaks.”
Both Abney and Lilly said they would recommend Orion to other utilities that are exploring installing an automated meter reading system.
“The Orion AMR system is doing what we wanted and expected it to do, our meter techs are happy, and we think it’s a giant step forward,” Lilly said.
Abney added, “although Badger is a big company, Badger people always treat us like we’re the only customer they have, which is unusual. We’ve never worked with a more responsive supplier than Badger Meter.”