IS Teams Aid AMR Installations

Aug. 12, 2004
Automation and data integration can trim time, costs and frustration from the AMR installation process

About the author: Betsy Loeff is a news writer for the Automatic Meter Reading Association. She can be reached at [email protected] or 847/480-9628.

What’s the key to a smooth-running AMR installation? Cross-functional planning and plenty of information system (IS) talent. That mix delivers impressive speed and efficiency in AMR deployments now under way at municipal water utilities in Boston and Cincinnati. Accordingly, this article examines at how automation and data integration can trim time, costs and frustration from the AMR installation process.

Picture-perfect locations

Installations are progressing with minimal problems at Boston Water & Sewer Commission (BWSC), but that wasn’t always the case. Under the direction of AMCO Automated Systems, Honeywell installers began deploying the 87,000 Hexagram endpoints in the utility’s fixed-network system two years ago.

“When we first started this project, we were getting a substantial error rate,” said Jay Porter, chief of staff for the Boston utility.

It was possible that some of meter transmission units (MTUs) weren’t consistently getting through to data collection units (DCUs)—a likely scenario in a city where some meters are installed two stories below ground and others are placed behind concrete stairways or walls. To diagnose the problem, the utility’s management information systems team integrated installation data with the utility’s geographical information system (GIS).

“We know which addresses have been successfully installed, so we now color-code the installations on the GIS maps,” Porter said. “We read meters four times per day and those where we consistently get a read, we display with green on the maps. Those where we have up to three reads in a day are shown in yellow. Those with no reads are shown in red.”

The end result is a map that clearly shows some small pockets of transmission trouble.

“We can see corridors of all red or all yellow MTUs,” Porter said. “Then we can overlay that data with geographic information. At that point, we can find a way to get around the problem.”

Though most of the utility’s 63 DCUs are atop public schools built two or three stories tall, some DCUs have been placed atop 20-story towers. “Once we get our DCUs in the right place, the map lights up with green,” Porter said.

Programming for improvements

While they were already collecting meter data via the installation process, the Boston team decided to do some forward-thinking data collection as well. Installers use Psion hand-held computers to record old and new meter numbers, verify addresses and correlate meters with their rightful ratepayers.

“There were other things we added to the program too,” Porter said. “We wanted to know the location of the meter in the building and the type of service coming in from the wall. Copper, lead, galvanized pipe? We wanted to know.”

With 75,000 completed installations, the utility found that 3,400 accounts are still being served by lead pipe and Porter expects that number to grow to 5,000 customers.

“We’ll be changing out those services soon,” he said. “The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is excited about the project.”

Bright idea in Cincinnati

Light bulb icons often signify great ideas and that’s certainly true at Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW), where light bulb indicators appear on screen as customer service representatives navigate their Indus customer information system (CIS). The icons go from gray to yellow, quickly showing reps important conditions such as a caller’s water having been turned off or the existence of an outstanding service order. Because reps already were accustomed to light bulb indicators, GCWW borrowed that format to signal reps when they should try to open doors for AMR installers.

About 60% of the 235,000 service connections GCWW plans to equip with AMR are located inside. At nearly 10% of those inside end-points, no one answered calls or letters asking customers to make an appointment with VSI, the contractor installing the utility’s new Neptune drive-by system.

“It could be an absentee landlord situation or maybe the customer just hasn’t gotten around to making the appointment,” said Alison Posinski, assistant superintendent for the GCWW commercial services division.

When customers do not make their installation appointments, no installation occurs. That’s the reason why GCWW’s information systems department built a multi-colored light bulb indicator to show installation status as reps review customer records.

“If the light bulb is yellow, VSI has sent that customer a letter asking for an installation appointment,” said Paul VonderMeulen, assistant manager of information technology. “If we’re having trouble getting the customer to call and set up an appointment, the light bulb turns blue at 95 days. When it turns red, it’s our responsibility to get that installation done. It’s no longer VSI’s problem. Green indicates the installation is complete.”

On seeing the red light bulb, however, the well-informed service reps can help installers get the meter access they need.

“As soon as reps see the red light bulb, they know we’re no longer offering that customer nonessential services,” VonderMeulen said. That means the utility withholds final readings for customers on the move and refuses to conduct high bill or leak investigations.

“If customers want something from us, they have to let us in to change out the meters,” Posinski said, adding that GCWW will use this trade-off approach for about three years, after which, meter change-out is required for continued service of any kind.

Automation start-to-finish

The light bulb indicator, though helpful, is only a small part of the programming work GCWW’s information systems department did to make the utility’s AMR installation quick and efficient. Even more impressive are the adjustments to the CIS that minimize manual data input and allow the utility to pursue its aggressive schedule of 200 installations each day.

“There are about 13 data changes that need to take place to keep our CIS up to date in a meter change-out. We estimated it would take a person 20 minutes to make all those changes manually,” VonderMeulen said. At 20 minutes per change, installing 200 meters each day generates up to 66 hours of clerical record keeping. GCWW avoided those tedious hours of work by making electronic data exchange one of its installation requirements and building a module in the CIS to record and close out the work order.

Automation speeds installation

Electronic service orders generated on a route-by-route basis as GCWW sends the orders to VSI, where the data is automatically downloaded into the hand-held devices installers carry with them into the field.

Barcodes and handheld scanners that coordinate addresses with meters and validate work orders, allowing for next-day confirmation of meter operation and accuracy. Again data is automatically downloaded into a mobile meter-reading unit so that a GCWW inspector can efficiently drive the installed routes and confirm meter operation.

GCWW has automated invoicing processes as well. After the reading confirmations take place, another data file goes from the utility to VSI. That file identifies successfully tested installations that are eligible for payment. VSI then sends essentially the same file back to the utility as an electronic invoice.

“If we did not have this system in place, I do not believe we could keep up with the invoicing,” Dave Bennett, GCWW’s project manager said. It may take as long as 10 to 12 hours per week to trudge through the kind of numbers that are being installed and verify installation success. “Without all the automation that our IS people developed, we couldn’t have completed this project in the scheduled four years,” Posinski said. “It would have taken twice that time, and by then, the equipment would be nearly obsolete.”

She added, “some people say we have a textbook case of how a project like this should be running.”

But Posinski disagrees. With the happy endings her IS team has delivered, she said the project is progressing like a fairytale come true.

About the Author

Betsy Loeff

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