Trends Emerging Through AMR Installations

Over 8 million of an estimated 60 million water meters are equipped with automatic meter reading (AMR) technology. More than 30% of the AMR-equipped water meters use Itron technology.

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By Anna Henry

Over 8 million of an estimated 60 million water meters are equipped with automatic meter reading (AMR) technology. More than 30% of the AMR-equipped water meters use Itron technology. In helping water companies transition to AMR, the market's leading manufacturer is seeing a number of trends emerging.

Trend: Approach to Cost Justification

Today, many of the water companies using Itron's AMR ERT modules, such as the City of Houston, have factored the benefits of replacing aging meters into the justification. According to Larry Paquet, Deputy Assistant Director Metering Services, "The City of Houston has 442,000 water meters and when we put our case forward for AMR, we knew that many of these meters weren't registering full usage. We've now installed about 319,000 new meters equipped with ERTs and since beginning the AMR installation we've seen unaccounted for water drop about 8%. Although revenue has stayed the same, pumpage has gone down and that's saved us about $10 million."

One New York-based water company, after testing a sampling of their installed meter base, found that their average meter accuracy was only 56.15%. With about 8,000 installed meters, the forecasted figures associated with recapturing revenue for previously unregistered water consumption made it easy for city official's to approve the AMR installation.

By implementing the ERT when the meter is changed out, utilities get more bang for the buck. Not only can the utility more accurately account for water consumption, the cost to create the infrastructure for AMR is defrayed.

Trend: Affordable For Any Utility

Early adoption of next generation product offerings was initially predicted to be confined to larger utilities. As if fulfilling the prophecy, in 1997, Itron's largest AMR installation at a water company rolled out 460,000 meters in the City of Philadelphia. However, Itron's client list of AMR users also includes small to mid-size utilities.

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"Our installation base proves that any size company can make a case for AMR," confides Itron's water business unit director, Darla Bowers. "We work with companies to match the right solution for their particular needs and value drivers. This includes an array of financing options that are available. Utilities may consider purchasing a system outright, on a turnkey basis, or even outsourcing."

Trend: Infrastructure Flexibility

Whether defined by the system's ability to support various meter types, by the deployment of the ERT modules, or by the system architecture's ability to accommodate market changes, infrastructure flexibility is emerging as a requirement.

According to Paquet, "Some of the competitive systems we evaluated only worked with a limited number of meters. We didn't want to be locked into one meter manufacturer." (Itron's system currently supports meters made by: AMCO, ABB, Kent, Badger, Hersey, Invensys, Sensus, Rockwell, Precision, Neptune, and Schlumberger.)

ERTs are also versatile. For example, Philadelphia Suburban Water is retrofitting approximately 230,000 meters by replacing an existing touchpad with an ERT module without altering the meter's register, maximizing the company's existing investment in capital equipment. Designed for use in pits, remote mounting, or direct meter mounting, ERTs provide installation options. ERTs also are available for an array of gas and electric meters. How the unit transmits data is another option left to the discretion of the utility.

Paquet explains, "Not only is Itron's new 50W-1 ERT with a submersible inline connector easier to install, it can be programmed for "wake-up" or "bubble-up" reading." In wake-up mode, communication between the collection unit and the ERT is done using a radio frequency licensed by the Federal Communications Committee (FCC). Since the unit only transmits when it hears the correct wake-up tone, it conserves battery consumptions, resulting in a battery life in excess of the 20 year life of the ERT. An ERT programmed to operate in bubble up mode periodically transmits the meter's encoded data for collection using an unlicensed frequency band. Although this reduces battery life to 10 years, this operating mode makes it easier to do an AMR trial since an FCC license is not required.

Itron technology affords utilities the freedom to intermix automated data collection methods to develop an overall system best suited to their specific conditions. To benefit from ERT installations as quickly as possible, utilities migrate to using radio-equipped handhelds for reading routes containing a mix of 'traditional' and ERT-equipped meters. As routes become saturated with ERTs, mobile collectors installed in vehicles make it possible to collect data by driving past the meter.

Recently Itron unveiled its next-generation vehicle-mounted data collector, the Mobile Collector 1.0. The unit offers enhanced reading capabilities, which means reads can be obtained without driving into cul-de-sacs or entering long driveways. Not only does the Mobile Collector trim the time to collect AMR reads, compared to prior generations of data collectors, the unit has the highest read success rate.

In this post 9-11 environment, many utilities are finding heightened security has made hard-to-access meters, even harder to access. Installations at airports, chemical plants, and other industrial customers are particularly challenging. For these meters, which may not be positioned for mobile radio data collection, Itron offers MicroNetwork and fixed network AMR solutions. A MicroNetwork allows ERTs to communicate with Concentrators. The units then pass on the consolidated reads to a central computer either by an Mobile Collector or phone line. Another alternative is a fixed network, which allows ERTs to communicate to a central location over a network of data collection points.

Denver Water already has plans to enhance its AMR with a MicroNetwork. Bob Blauvelt, Customer Services Field Manager explains, "We have a local college where meters are being installed on individual campus buildings. Some of these meters won't have drive-by access. The MicroNetwork will allow us to consolidate reads and collect them at a convenient location."

"When we selected the system, we also took into consideration that Excel Energy, a local electric utility, had also selected an Itron system. One of the longer range goals deals with forming a partner relationship between Denver Water and Excel Energy so when the time's right we can to move to a fixed-based system and possibly share the expense."

Trend: Accurate Monthly Billing

Virtually every water company using AMR is driving towards billing based on actual monthly consumption, which brings with it a barrage of benefits.

"Prior to this installation, we billed monthly but attempted to read only quarterly," explains AMR administrator, Mike Hogan from the City of Philadelphia. "Our reading success rate was about one in three, so about 90% of the bills we sent out were based on estimates."

The company received 175,000 calls per year related to billing, contributing to the need for a larger phone center and more service staff to handle billing complaints. The estimated bill expenses snowballed when factoring in higher delinquency rates, prolongation of the payment cycle, and increased costs for enforcement and collection. Today, 97% of the company's meters are fitted with ERTs and 24,000 to 25,000 meters are read daily. With the ability to bill on actual reads, Hogan estimates that billing complaints have been cut in half.

Long Beach in New York is another water utility that has found that customers tend to pay more promptly, minimizing accounts receivables and increasing revenue flow. Philadelphia Suburban Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in the United States, states that it expects its conversion from quarterly to monthly reading will save the company over a million dollars annually.

Ricky Caruolo, AMR Project Manager and Customer Service Manager for Providence Water Company notes, "Billing based on actual reads is helping us improve customer service. We are able to be more pro-active in spotting potential problems. For someone like a senior citizen on a budget, if the water bill doubles because of small or undetected leaks, that can be a big problem. Since we bill on actual data, we are able to spot above normal consumption sooner and be more responsive in locating and correcting problems."

Other trends are emerging that relate to approaches to installation, service expectations and sharing experiences. Perhaps more importantly than establishing trends, those companies that have installed AMR solutions have substantiated the benefits of the technology.

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