Smart Metering Requires Smart Planning: Ten Things to Consider Before Deploying Smart Meters

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is the most significant change to the water grid infrastructure since the dawn of the industry.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is the most significant change to the water grid infrastructure since the dawn of the industry. For a utility preparing for an AMI project, selecting the right smart grid technology and hardware is often the largest and most labor-intensive activity undertaken.

During the deployment process, there is ample opportunity for preventable issues to negatively impact customer satisfaction, quality and efficiency. Therefore, a number of considerations need to be factored in the planning process.

1. Who will deploy the meters?

This is a central decision in the deployment process. Utilities must consider whether to outsource deployment, conduct the work in-house or pursue a hybrid approach. Key factors in the decision include:

  • What is the timeline of deployment? Shorter timeframes may require outside personnel to meet aggressive timelines.
  • Have 'turn-backs' been factored in? Between 8 and 15 percent of meters cannot be deployed by outsourced deployment vendors and will need to be installed by the utility.
  • Is there in-house mass deployment expertise?

2. Which deployment tools to use?

With thousands of meters to change in a relatively short period of time, deployment projects involve significant scheduling, appointment management, order assignment, data capture and asset tracking challenges. Most utilities have adopted an electronic solution to mitigate risks and increase efficiency during the deployment process. Trends indicate utilities are providing tools for their internal teams and outsourced deployment companies.

3. Use smart technology

Paper versus mobile tools: A paper-based workflow is prone to problems. More than 8 percent of meter exchanges have issues during installation or immediately afterward. Examples include:

  • wrong meter is exchanged
  • wrong meter ID is captured
  • incorrect meter read
  • paperwork transcription errors
  • paperwork is lost

Tip: Consider mobile devices embedded with mobile workflow software, which ensures data is accurately captured and verified and the proper workflow process is enforced while deploying smart meters.

Many solutions, one tool

New smart mobile devices that incorporate many solutions into one physical device are available. Look out for:

  • Barcode scanning for asset verification, asset tracking and inventory management
  • Mobile phone capabilities
  • Photo capture for meter readings and customer disputes
  • Meter and network node initialization and diagnostics
  • GPS data capture for asset location verification and worker safety
  • Interoperability with legacy systems and seamless data integration

Tip: Look for solutions where photos are easily attached to the customer file using an integrated mobile workflow. This is also useful for resolving customer disputes.

Tip: Accurately capture the GPS data of smart meter locations. This information can be updated directly into the utility's GIS system at the same time as the AMI deployment. Seamless integration could potentially save millions of dollars.

4. Customer satisfaction

No other controllable event has the potential to generate as much widespread customer dissatisfaction and mistrust as a meter deployment. Fortunately most meter deployment issues are preventable by good planning and experienced deployment teams with specialized tools.

Reduce errors and maximize customer satisfaction

Up to 8 percent of deployments without electronic tools will have incorrect data capture or incorrect meter installations. Specialized meter deployment tools speed up installation processes and eliminate preventable errors.

Minimize disputes

Capturing data accurately using mobile tools and then verifying the data with a digital photograph will significantly reduce the time needed to resolve any customer disputes. This also eliminates verification truck rolls.

Schedule callbacks when convenient to the customer

Meters are missed due to inaccessible locations, roaming pets in the yard, or simply because nobody is home to let the installer into the building. Subsequent callbacks to arrange access can be a frustrating exercise for both customer and utility company. Lower costs and time by using integrated scheduling systems to reduce missed calls and improve the customer experience.

5. Safety

All work around energized assets involves some level of safety risk and meter exchanges are no exception.

Safety timer

Don't let your technicians get stranded in an out-of-coverage area and without access to help. With safety timers, your central dispatch computer tracks how long a technician has been onsite at a potentially hazardous job location and will receive an alert notification.

Emergency assistance

Smart mobile installation tools are GPS-enabled so that your central office and dispatch can see where all technicians are in real time. The right mobile tool ensures they are in constant contact and can quickly and easily make the call for help.

6. Scheduling and assigning orders

Assigning meter exchange orders

The first installations in a given area are easily assigned by reading route, sequence, and street or by zip. The assignment task becomes more difficult as out-of-sequence appointments become more frequent and designing efficient routes becomes more complex.

Handling appointments and scheduling

Most C&I and up to 10 percent of residential meter exchanges require appointments. Setting them efficiently is key.

Map-based assignments

Second and third passes are required to handle callbacks, turn backs and other appointments. More driving is required and the most efficient order of work is often not immediately apparent. Some tools will allow dispatchers to overcome challenges by displaying and assigning orders on dispatch maps and optimizing driving routes.

Tip: Many tools will also provide productivity reports for you to measure reports by work type, worker, team, etc.

Tip: Look for a solution that offers route optimization and in-vehicle navigation to cut truck rolls and fuel costs.

Callbacks to inaccessible meter locations

Callbacks are unavoidable in any large scale AMI smart meter rollout. Having systems in place to automatically reroute and reschedule technicians based on emergencies, and trigger customer service calls to rebook appointments, is critical.

7. Tracking progress

Questions about your deployment's progress are inevitable. Deployment vendors will bill utilities weekly or bi-weekly based on the number of meters installed. Inventory levels need to be balanced with deployment progress.

Identifying which meters are active and NOT reporting is a critical step. In paper-based deployments, utilities have no knowledge of these problems until revealed by random inspection.

Tip: Look for electronic tools that integrate with your MDM system. This gives you visibility into installed and working meters. Most importantly, you can easily see which meters have been installed but are NOT reporting.

Tip: Look for a solution that allows you to generate audit orders.

8. Post-deployment maintenance

Smart meters are much more complex devices than standard meters and are therefore more prone to failure than traditional meters. Increased smart meter failures result in more service calls.

Use the same mobile tools

The mobile devices and mobile workforce software utilities use to deploy the smart meters can be used by the field technicians to service the infrastructure. The ability to interface directly with the smart meters and quickly diagnose problems saves time and money, and improves customer satisfaction.

Smart grids have the capability to self-assess their health and help pinpoint faults in the system. Those faults can be turned into actionable orders and the correct personnel can be dispatched quickly based on location and problem-type.

9. Regulatory compliance

No customer left behind

The potential economic value of a smart grid can be compromised if even a small number of customers have not upgraded to smart meters. Mobile devices used to install and service smart meters can be configured to collect meter readings. Integrating remote locations into the full smart grid by using mobile technicians to link remotely to hard-to-reach smart meters and avoid costly build outs of standalone radio structures can be a cost-effective solution.

Measurement compliance

Significant penalties are set if measurements are found to be inaccurate. Technicians can capture information accurately with mobile tools and verify and confirm using photography.

10. Security

Avoid paper

In paper-based processes, paperwork can get lost, information can be easily viewed by unauthorized personnel, and the security and integrity of the data is compromised. Electronic solutions can automate the installation process and encrypt data to prevent any unauthorized viewing of private information during collection and transmission.

RFID

Consider using RFID tags to scan an entire pallet of meters without compromising security by having to remove the protective shrink-wrap.

Smart meter deployment projects are complex indeed, but with some forethought to issues such as route planning and optimization, inventory management and customer relationship management, common pitfalls can be avoided and the process can be a smooth one for both the utility and its customers. WW


About the Company: Clevest is a developer of software for smart meter deployments and mobile field force optimization for utility companies. The company's platform-independent architecture is designed for fast, seamless integration with any number of legacy IT systems including CIS and MDM systems. For more information on Clevest Solutions, visit www.clevest.com.

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