When managers at the city of Richmond (Va.) Public Utilities first eyed Automatic Meter Reading, they were looking to implement best-of-class technology. As it turns out, the utility has been helping to develop it since installing a drive-by AMR system in 2003.
“Our former director of utilities wanted AMR to give customers top-quality meter-reading and billing services,” said Lew Adkins, Richmond’s customer service manager.
For that reason, the Richmond team grabbed the opportunity to be a beta test site for new Itron transmitters and mobile data collectors designed to serve water utilities.
“As a result of our project, we’ve learned a lot about water meter automation issues,” Adkins said.
So has Itron, and Adkins believes the technology refinements developed in Richmond will have a positive effect for countless water utilities looking to AMR in the future.
Some of the issues plaguing the Richmond water meters are beyond the utility’s control. Severe weather has left the utility fighting flooded meter pits and submerged encoder/receiver/transmitter (ERT) units. Water completely covering the ERT has had detrimental effects on radio transmission. The utility plans to replace some of the current pit lids with recessed lids, which will eliminate many issues surrounding submerged ERTs.
Another issue has been a downward shift in the radio frequency of some ERTs.
“We’ve had units we couldn’t read because they were transmitting out of the low range of the mobile data collection units,” Adkins said.
In addition, the utility discovered it had to make room for a wider gap under the meter pit lids to allow signals to be received within the low RF range of the data collecting units. That’s why the utility is experimenting with spacing devices under the lid to create a wider air gap that allows for the receipt of the low RF signal range.
“These difficulties aren’t insurmountable,” Adkins said. “The key is that we’re working with our vendor to resolve each issue.”
Richmond automated 110,000 gas meters and 64,000 water meters, and while some bugs linger in the water meter system, the project remains a resounding success.
“We’ve reduced our cost per read from 68 cents to 39 cents,” Adkins said, and he expects further reductions to come once the utility eliminates the issues thwarting reads on about 10% of water meters. Even with some 6,000 water meters left to read, the utility has reduced its meter-reading staff from 41 to 11 people.
“Once all the reading issues are under control, we can free up additional staff to improve business process,” Adkins said.
Benefits beyond the read
Adkins already knows how some of the surplus meter readers can serve his utility in the future.
“We’ll form an AMR maintenance team with a few readers who will go out to fix problems that crop up,” he said.
In addition, he’s planning on making use of his mobile data collector’s sophisticated mapping capabilities to efficiently find consumption on inactive meters.
Adkins expects AMR to help Richmond:
- Detect theft proactively. The future purchase of a mobile data collector will allow the city to download lists of addresses where customers have had service disconnected for nonpayment. “If people are going to reconnect service themselves, we know they’ll do it very quickly,” Adkins explained. “We’ll give them three days, then drive around and check all the meters where services have been disconnected. We anticipate significant savings by quickly being able to stop people from stealing.”
- Get off-cycle reads quickly. Another application for the mobile data collector’s mapping capabilities is what Adkins calls “read for change” orders. Today, the utility has field service technicians handling the 23,000 off-cycle reads each year that arise when one resident moves out and another moves into a property. Adkins believes he’ll be able to take that job off the plate of his 50 field service techs and manage it with one drive-by meter reader instead, resulting in improved operational efficiencies and significant cost reductions.
- Improve customer service. Property intrusion is a thing of the past for this utility. With AMR, Richmond
Utilities no longer needs to get inside properties, homes and businesses to read its meters. What’s more, the reads are more accurate. “All accessible meters are reading at a 100% accuracy rate,” Adkins said. Before AMR, Richmond estimated as many as 3,000 gas bills each month. Now the utility estimates no more than 200 gas bills per month, and Adkins expects to achieve zero estimates once automation is complete.
City of Richmond, Va., evolving AMR system installed since 2003