Rick Straley is former marketing communications manager for Sensus. For questions or comments about this article, contact Dan Pinney, vice president of global water marketing for Sensus, a Xylem brand. Pinney can be reached at [email protected].
Editor's Note: This article's author information has been updated to reflect a change in contact information.
Flexibility, sound management decisions and leveraging various avenues of technology have set the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District (FCLWD) on a path of smart utility operations. The Colorado utility, located about 60 miles north of Denver, employs a unique mix of AMR and AMI meter reading and communications systems. Officials have said the plan is working to increase customer service, aid in resource conservation and create a foundation for expected growth.
The FCLWD, in operation since the 1960s, began a transition from handheld meter reading to a drive-by RadioRead system in 2002. With about 60 sq miles of service area, officials found the RadioRead solution to be a better way to utilize employee time and eliminate issues with accessing customer property. Deployment began in subdivisions with aging equipment and then switched to densely populated areas to capitalize on the speed of reads offered by drive-by units.
With the launch of FlexNet by Sensus, FCLWD officials saw the opportunity to employ AMI technology to service a portion of its 13,600 residential and 400 commercial customers with an even higher level of efficiency, given the area’s challenging terrain. The utility uses Sensus meters and reading equipment, supplied by local distributor Dana Kepner Co., Inc. The FCLWD uses a mix of pit and nonpit meters and transmitters to serve its customer base.
The district sits at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and serves portions of the towns of Ft. Collins, Windsor, Timnath and Larimer County. The highly traveled Interstate 25 bisects the urban territory, which has a higher population density on the west side of the interstate than on the east. The area also hosts Colorado State University, and the Ft. Collins region has been listed by major magazines as one of the top places to live, work and raise a family for five straight years.
“With the kind of attention our area is getting nationally, we saw the benefits of embracing the FlexNet technology now to leverage its benefits, and also to have it in place and be ready for the coming growth,” said Tre’ Grisby, customer service and information technology liaison for FCLWD.
As part of the FlexNet deployment process, Sensus performed a propagation study on the service area to identify the required infrastructure. Because growth was already occurring east of I-25, the water district targeted that region for FlexNet. The move was meant to eliminate the need for drive-by coverage in an area that was growing farther from its central operations.
One Tower Gateway Basestation (TGB) services FlexNet customers, and Grisby said officials are optimistic that as growth commences, the TGB has the capacity to continue handling data collection needs.
FCLWD currently uses three methods to collect usage data from its customer base. It uses RadioRead to gain monthly readings for 7,000 of its customers, most of whom are on the west side of I-25. FlexNet provides daily reads to 3,000-plus customers on the east side of the road, and the balance is read manually. No estimates are used, and there is no rate difference for RadioRead and FlexNet customers. The hybrid AMR-AMI setup is working so well, according to Grisby, that the utility plans to continue deploying the west side with RadioRead and the east side with FlexNet.
“Each is so easy to use that you can have the benefits of both at once,” Grisby said. “Our AMI is placed so that we can accommodate the expected growth, and it eliminates the need to deploy meter readers to the east, which saves us gas and travel time. On the west, RadioRead takes less time for our meter readers to complete their job compared to manual readings. We can keep both AMR/AMI systems running side by side because there is no potential for conflicts since the systems operate independently of each other.”
Customer Service & Staff Training
Both systems give FCLWD more ways to answer customers’ questions about their usage. “There are diagnostic abilities with FlexNet we couldn’t even think of as possible before. We can read the meters on days we are not in the office, and we can read meters from the office instead of sending a tech out to the property for a reading,” Grisby said. “The RadioRead system also provides us with useful data and mapping for a physical representation of where everything is, and it offers several diagnostics via reports, allowing technicians to dial in meters perfectly.”
Utility customer service personnel can access charts and graphs immediately to respond to customer inquiries without dispatching personnel to reread the meter. The new system is explained to customers via mailers and when they call in with questions.
FCLWD also made sure its staff was aware of and comfortable with the changes brought about by the new system. The utility retrained those employees who used to read meters in the field to do other functions. Conversely, customer growth will not put a strain on human resources because the hybrid system can tackle the extra workload automatically. Overall, the water district and its board of directors are happy with their unique system, according to Grisby.
“The timing was right to employ a hybrid system. The business case was there, the technology was there and the investigation proved this was the right thing to do,” he said. “I anticipate using a hybrid system for many years to come.”