Atlanta Department Takes Hybrid Approach to AMR

The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management had been reading meters using a fully manual process, with readers having to lift each lid on site.

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The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management had been reading meters using a fully manual process, with readers having to lift each lid on site. The billing cycle required an entire month to read the meters of roughly 150,000 water service customers in the metropolitan Atlanta area and unincorporated rural areas of Fulton County.

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Atlanta Commissioner Rob Hunter speaks during the kickoff of Atlanta’s “ATL Read” campaign.
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Aside from the need for time and labor savings, other factors contributed to the department’s move to automation. According to Sylvia Glover, Water Utility Manager for the department’s AMR division, safety was a major concern, particularly in certain metropolitan areas. And with 95-98 percent of residential meters at the curbside, not only was vehicle traffic an issue but so was accessibility, since meter boxes were often covered with leaves, dirt or debris from new construction.

Based on a business case, the city determined it was in its best interest to move to an automated meter reading (AMR) system.

“We looked at the return on investment of having people on the ground reading each meter versus an automated or mobile AMR solution – it was a no-brainer,” said Ron Booth, Vice President and Principal Management Consultant for CH2M Hill Consulting. “The difference in terms of gasoline, vehicle maintenance, and labor quickly led us to a decision.”

Safety and accessibility came into play with larger commercial accounts too. Readers often had to remove huge concrete lids and climb down into deep, confined vaults.

“A lot of those meters, especially the ones with large lids, required estimation,” Booth said.

The vaults on the Hartsfield International Airport runway were among the worst, periodically filling with rainwater runoff and needing to be pumped out – while the readers underwent a rigorous security check to access the area.

The department began evaluating vendors to solve these problems: It sent out requests for proposal, invited vendors to present, and conducted field site visits in Washington D.C.; Aiken, SC; and Montgomery, AL.

K&V Automation, an installation and project management contractor, submitted two proposals for an ARB® Utility Management System™ from Neptune Technology Group. One proposal was for a fully mobile solution and the other for a hybrid solution. The department selected the hybrid approach, as it offered both a mobile and a targeted fixed network solution that could be tailored to meet the needs of the application.

Glover took the entire team to Tallassee to tour the Neptune factory.

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The Atlanta AMR Project Team.
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“[It] was good to see how [the System components] are made, to see the quality control that’s in place, everything from the meters to the dials on the meter face,” she said.

Installation

The project started in December 2006. K&V installed ProRead registers with R900® radio frequency transmitters, MRX920™ data collectors for mobile reads, CE5320X handhelds for the walk-by reads, EZGate™ II (R900® GPRS Gateway) data collectors for the targeted fixed reads, and Equinox™ meter reading software. All the meter reading is transferred through an interface to the department’s billing system. Approximately 41,000-42,000 meters were installed as of March 2008.

The fixed network infrastructure includes 493 large commercial meters downtown and at the airport, home to nearly half those meters. The targeted fixed-base option was chosen in part to address the airport’s security clearance and access issues.

With the installation of the first EZGate II data collector downtown, the department found that it was able to read a larger number of meters than anticipated. Since each collector can process such a large number of meter readings, the city can also pick up thousands of additional residential meter signals – something that could eventually help improve routing and billing.

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Fixed network data collectors were installed to read large commercial meters in downtown Atlanta.
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The remainder of residential meters will be read using mobile data collectors. Before the conversion, 30 meter readers were required to read the meters. Upon the project completion in July 2009, only two readers will be needed every other day at the most. Since the city currently contracts for that labor, the new mobile system will quickly pay for itself, Glover said.

Another “huge benefit” of the system, Booth added, is the ability to quickly identify meters that have been tampered with – now the department will know whether an act of vandalism signals a repeat offense or whether it needs to focus more attention on a specific residence.

Communication

Part of the overall plan for the project was a communications effort to inform customers of the change. The communications plan began in June 2006, six months before implementation, and continues today.

The city has Neighborhood Planning Units (NPU), and a representative of the Department of Watershed Management program attends each monthly NPU meeting to give an update on upcoming and ongoing projects.

The department developed a logo for the AMR program, “ATL Read.” That logo appears on a postcard mailed two weeks ahead of any installation or changeout along with an overview and the benefits of AMR. Bill inserts and door hangers also feature the logo.

Additionally, the city posted the message to its website and on billboards and distributed press releases to the local media. At the AMR kickoff, news stations televised the installation of a meter at a customer’s house as residents came up and asked questions.

The department has assured its residential customers that their bills will be accurate, earning “overwhelmingly positive feedback,” Booth said. “They were curious, wanting to know how the technology worked and that sort of thing.”

“Our large commercial customers saw it as a win-win,” said Glover, since the city eliminated estimated billing and began implementing a targeted fixed network system that will provide daily water consumption data for the targeted commercial meters.

A year and a half into the implementation of its ARB Utility Management System, the department is enthusiastic about the results it has seen. Reading and billing turnaround time has improved drastically making it easier to resolve billing issues. But the most immediate benefit, according to Booth, is “the accuracy of the readings themselves. No transposed numbers – it’s a hyper-accurate reading in each case.”

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