By Denise Barton
Updating an infrastructure can be a daunting task, but one that is necessary in the face of aging technologies and tight budgets. Assessing the problem, developing a vision, and researching alternatives takes dedication but the rewards can have positive impact for many years.
When Wellington Utilities in Wellington, FL, took action to replace an outdated automated meter reading (AMR) system with automated metering infrastructure (AMI) utility executives were looking at a minimum to control meter reading costs, improve billing accuracy and encourage conservation. With the implementation of a private regional wireless mesh network, the utility was able to take the AMI beyond meter reading, creating a multi-use foundation for government and community that have had much broader community benefits.
Wellington Utilities maintains approximately 23,000 meters across 40 square miles. The utility's drive-by AMR system was nearing end-of-life and was not working effectively with approximately 25 percent misreads, resulting in poor customer satisfaction and inaccurate billing.
The utility's goal was to select the most productive and cost effective meter reading method possible, so it began working with Wellington's IT department to evaluate alternatives. The utility researched several replacement systems, evaluating criteria such as reading services, additional services, cost saving areas, revenue generation, installation costs, payoff timeframe, and ROI.
After evaluating several options, they decided that water meters connected by a wireless broadband network would be the best approach. The wireless network offered bidirectional communications, open frequency, easier installation and upgrades, and the ability to leverage the network for many other utility and city service applications.
As Tom Amburgey, CIO for Wellington, explained, "We found that Tropos Networks' mesh routers would save over $450,000 compared to our current system, the highest of the four solutions that were considered. ROI over a 20 year period was estimated at 128 percent, with a tremendous amount of currently unrealized ROI based on future system use."
The new wireless broadband mesh network provides standards-based IP communications, delivering fixed and mobile broadband connectivity virtually anywhere throughout Wellington. The mesh architecture weighed heavily in the selection because of its inherent resiliency and redundancy, which is an important consideration in a hurricane-prone area such as Wellington.
The mesh routers link to Wellington's existing wireless backhaul, sending data to the utility's billing center for processing. Mobile water utility vehicles are equipped with mobile mesh routers, extending network coverage and replacing expensive cellular cards in PCs. Eliminating the cellular modems provides a savings of $2,000 per month plus greater connection speeds.
The project was largely completed in 2009, and included replacement of water meters, installation of wireless meter reading equipment, wireless network installation, upgrading lift stations to use wireless mesh communications, vehicle retrofits for full mobile connectivity to the network, and testing of the stormwater system's use of the wireless network.
The results have been dramatic. Annual revenue is up 19 percent for the water utility. The new system provides scheduled water meter reads every four hours instead of once a month. Monthly meter reading time has been reduced from 27 days per months to 12 and field time to only 8 days each month, for a savings of 280 hours monthly. Three staff members have been reallocated from meter reading to other important customer service functions, further enhancing productivity and customer responsiveness.
"We don't have to send people out to read gauges," said Wellington Manager, Paul Schofield. "It can be done by any computer on the system."
"In addition to improving meter reading efficiencies and accuracy, the application enhances the water department's ability to detect and pinpoint the location of leaks and other service problems faster, which will help reduce water loss and improve customer service," said Amburgey.
Utility workers can pull up permits and maps from anywhere in the city. Employees can pinpoint and react to the cause of most problems almost immediately.
With the upgrade of 102 lift station controllers including connecting them to the wireless network, lift station SCADA configuration times have been reduced to 30 minutes -- down from the previous 8 to 10 hours. In fact, communication time was cut by 97 percent.
Part of what makes Wellington unique is the high percentage of seasonal residents. With water needing to be turned off and on as residents come and go, the new meter system enabled simplified operational abilities and the option for each homeowner to read his or her own meter to check usage.
Leveraging theBroadband Network
Applications that can be deployed over the same wireless broadband network infrastructure are already expanding. For a utility, this means a paperless work order system that enables orders to be completed in minutes instead of hours. And mobile workers can use instant video chat, allowing crew members to transmit live video of worksites to supervisors for questions and reviews.
Through comprehensive research and evaluation of network communications technologies, Wellington Utilities was able to make an investment decision that has provided both the water utility and the community with the best ROI, improvements in delivery of services, and customer satisfaction. This is an example of the leadership role water utilities can take to have a broad, positive impact on a community.
About the Author: Denise Barton is the Marketing Director for Tropos Networks. Prior to Tropos, she led outbound marketing and product strategy development efforts for various networking and security companies including Cisco, SynOptics/Bay Networks, NetScreen and 3Com Corporation. Barton holds a BS degree in business administration from the University of the Pacific.