Mobile meter reading solution improves efficiencies for Washington utility
Public Utility District No. 1 of Skagit County (Skagit PUD) in Washington state was facing a number of challenges related to its meter reading system. Because the utility was using a touch-read/visual-read system, it was highly dependent on its water meter readers’ acquired route knowledge. Two of the Skagit PUD’s three meter readers were planning to retire soon, and it would take at least a year to hire and train new employees to fill their experienced shoes. At the same time, the community was growing at a steady pace, and a significant number of its existing meters were reaching the end of their useful life-cycle.
In light of aging infrastructure; ongoing growth that would require an increasing number of new meter installations, maintenance and other tasks; and eminent employee retirements, Skagit PUD decided it was prudent to upgrade its system. An automatic meter reading (AMR) system from Badger Meter was chosen as the solution.
Customer Service & Conservation
Located between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Skagit PUD is one of 28 public utilities in Washington. With 24,000 accounts in Skagit County and accolades for its great tasting water, the utility provides 9 million gal of water to 65,000 residential, commercial and agricultural customers each day.
Skagit PUD’s upgrade from manual meter reading began in 2005 with the deployment of the Badger Meter Orion CE mobile system. Besides the motivation to increase efficiency and quality, precise measurement was a vital factor to support the utility’s conservation and reporting requirements.
“Accuracy was one of the main reasons we went with Badger Meter,” said Kevin Tate, community relations manager for Skagit PUD. “We bench-tested Badger Meter and a host of others ... Its meters are extremely accurate, even at low flows. We were also quite impressed with the meter quality.”
The utility’s in-house construction crew handled the installation; within four years, the new system was fully deployed. Skagit PUD is using Badger Meter Recordall Disc Series meters from 5/8 to 2 in. for residential applications and Recordall Compound and Turbo Series meters for commercial applications, along with Orion water endpoints. Other system components include a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, Trimble Ranger handheld computers and ReadCenter software.
For distribution and source metering applications, the utility replaced about a dozen existing propeller meters with M-Series electromagnetic (mag) flowmeters in sizes from ½ in. up to 8 in. The completely open flow tube design of the mag meters virtually eliminates pressure loss and with no moving parts, maintenance is kept to a minimum.
According to Mike Fox, operations manager for Skagit PUD, accuracy was a motivating factor behind the change. “The mag meters are more accurate than the previous meters we were using for distribution measurement,” Fox said. “And with state laws that require us to maintain less than 10% accountable water loss, measurement is critical.”
Fox echoed Tate’s comments about product quality. “The new meters are definitely of better quality than what we had been using. We also decided it was best to source all of our meters from the same manufacturer.”
Streamlining the Reading Process
Previously, three of the five people in Skagit PUD’s water department held the job of meter reader, conducting touch reads and visual reads on 12,000 meters per month. This meant initiating physical contact with every meter—which could be located near the sidewalk or under a bush—and the meter readers had to know where to find them.
From 2000 to 2005, the utility was adding approximately 500 meters per year, resulting in 10 additional days of meter reading. It was a challenge just to keep pace with bimonthly residential billing and monthly commercial billing.
“Our readers now can read a route in a couple hours versus a couple days,” Tate said. “They just drive down the street and, beep, beep, beep—they pick up the readings. It’s so much easier than before.”
The increased efficiency has enabled more time for meter maintenance, an important task in this rural area where blackberry bushes and other shrubbery grow profusely and require regular trimming. Plus, it provides more flexibility for scheduling vacations and considerably reduces physical stress on meter technicians because they no longer need to bend down to make physical contact with each meter.
Safety is improved because meter readers can avoid encounters with unfriendly dogs, as well as weather- or traffic-related hazards. Plus, the utility spends less time training personnel because it is not necessary for each reader to know the exact location of every meter box.
Proactive Leak Detection
Tate said the ability to track potential leaks for individual homes and buildings is “just really good customer service.” Badger Meter ReadCenter software provides notification if a meter is showing continual use because it signals a potential leak. Skagit PUD then uses that information to inform its customers. “We created door tags to put on customers’ homes to notify them of a possible leak, along with information about how they might identify the leak,” Tate said.
In addition, Skagit PUD’s bills contain a graph showing a customer’s two-year water usage history by month. “If a customer sees a spike in usage, we can help pinpoint potential causes, so they can fix the problem. It’s a great feature of the software. Customers are motivated to fix these leaks as it can result in a credit back on their water bill,” Tate said. “With the leak detection feature, we’ve seen the number of leaks go down and stay fairly stable, helping us keep overall system leakage under the required 10%.”
Washington’s Water Use Efficiency Program requires municipal water suppliers to set conservation goals and report on their performance annually. These measurable, water-saving objectives are set for a six-year period, and the ability to conduct leak notifications is helping Skagit PUD achieve its conservation goals. “Water is a precious commodity, and the AMR system from Badger Meter is one more tool we can use to help reduce our customers’ water consumption,” Tate said. “It integrates with everything we’re doing.”