Like many utilities in largely rural areas of America, the Anson County, N.C., Water Department (ACWD) sends its reader trucks out to cover a lot of asphalt, gravel and dirt. In addition to meeting the needs of far-flung families and commercial customers, the department serves a flock of turkey and chicken farms that are seriously dependent on sprays of water to reduce dust and heat in the barn environment. Uninterrupted 2-in. water service is crucial to keeping the poultry alive and healthy.
But with some 531 sq miles to cover and fewer than 50 people per square mile, the department spent too much time getting regular and accurate meter readings. Eight people and four trucks struggled to keep up. Employee vacations, a steep route-learning curve and meters that were difficult to locate compounded the challenge.
On top of that, about 50 misreads and suspected leaks every month meant sending a reader and a truck as many as 30 miles to resolve each problem. Worse yet, the department would pull six workers off a water line construction crew to handle the monthly reads. After setting a goal of having water lines on every road in Anson County, the last thing the Board of Commissioners wanted to do was draft high-wage equipment operators to read meters.
For years, Anson County Water and Sewer Supervisor Steven Natoli searched for the right solution. In 2007, he found it at Hersey Meters. As Natoli quickly discovered, the Hersey Hot Rod automated meter reading (AMR) system could provide real savings in manpower and operational expenses. For Anson County, using the system has minimized time spent reading and rereading meters, hastened new water line construction and reduced customer complaints, offering instant evidence of leaks.
Natoli said his department had launched a program that fell through when some touch-read hand-helds would not work with in-house billing software.
“We first looked at touch-read 10 years ago, and we’re glad we didn’t go any further down that road than we did,” Natoli said. “At the time we started looking, we weren’t convinced that radio-read was the way to go. Fixed network was not an option yet, and still isn’t when you’re as spread out as we are.”
Along his journey to find a better way, Natoli looked at almost every brand of reader for one that worked well with the department’s billing software. He purchased a trial package from Hersey that consisted of a radio reader, 15 meters and software for less than the cost of other companies’ reader alone.
“We installed those meters in a small housing development. My boss and I hooked up the equipment temporarily in a truck to test the system,” Natoli said. “Before we even got to the development entrance, the Hersey system was done reading 14 of the 15 meters. The 15th was almost completely underwater, so we had to get a little closer for it to read. The speed with which we could read the meters was amazing.”
Natoli said that he and his boss were so impressed that they took some of their board members and a local newspaper reporter out to see what the system could do. Ultimately, Natoli said he took bids for the system from eight manufacturers. “The board really got behind Hersey because they could see it would really save money and time,” he said.
Today the department has just one person in one truck reading meters, saving a huge amount of time and money.
“The installation went far more smoothly than I expected,” Natoli said. Hersey and the installation contractor helped Natoli deal with limited meter storage space. During meter changeover, they also helped anticipate problems with older galvanized piping and coordinated scheduling so that work could be done during the short period when no animals were in residence on poultry farms. When Natoli had some difficulty with the software configuration, Hersey responded well.
“They modified the software specifically for our application to help us avoid secondary reads that disrupted billing cycles,” Natoli said. “Changing the billing cycle creates all kinds of customer fallout because just adding a week or so can raise the amount of customers’ bills. Our customers notice and call if their bill goes up by $3, so needless to say, we depend on meter reading consistency.”
As the ACWD moved forward, it finished using GPS to locate meters, enabling use of Hersey’s mapping program. “Our meter reader can look at the laptop and see a map with all the meters,” Natoli said. “The meter icons disappear as they are read, so it’s easy to tell if any have been missed. Or they change color to indicate a potential problem.”
The system’s leak reporting capabilities are “worth their weight in gold,” according to Natoli. “We use the leak report everyday,” he said. “In fact, our customer service representatives keep it with them at the window at all times and would be lost without it.”
When customers say their bills are too high, the reps check the leak report immediately. They can relay the data to prove that there is a leak and tell exactly how long it has been leaking. Such reports have reduced trips to investigate possible leaks by 99%, saving a great deal of time and money. Before the water department brought Hersey on board, customers would tell service reps they were “running the washer,” which put ACWD in the position of having to argue with customers without any supporting evidence.
“Now we can verify that a leak existed and when it was repaired, which allows us to adjust a customer’s high bill down as per-county policy. This means that our leak report can be used to save our customers some money,” Natoli said.
A Long-Term Investment
In the future, Anson County could take full advantage of features such as data logging. Its relationship with Hersey will also help the utility adapt to changes in customer needs.
During times when water conservation becomes a challenge for many communities, the right AMR system will support efforts to avoid wasting water through infrastructure failures and water theft. In addition to helping with water conservation, customers find that a commitment to open architecture helps to protect investments they have made in previously installed encoded meters.
In times of tightening budgets, it is more important than ever for communities to work with metering and water products companies that design and build products that offer value far beyond their purchase price. Ensuring that utility personnel understand AMR system operation is another integral part of successfully applying new technology.
As the ACWD discovered, it is also important to choose suppliers who are focused not just on selling products but on doing everything they can to make those products work for the individual needs of utilities and their customers. Without such guidance, the road to adopting better meter reading systems can seem endless.