Water Utilities Pump More Value from AMR

In an industry where many utilities still read meters quarterly, AMR's traditional benefits such as labor savings and increased meter-reading efficiency still count for plenty in the water utility business.

By Betsy Loeff, AMRA News Writer

In an industry where many utilities still read meters quarterly, AMR's traditional benefits such as labor savings and increased meter-reading efficiency still count for plenty in the water utility business. But increasingly, water utility managers look beyond meter-reading applications when they implement automation. And whether they go with fixed-network or drive-by systems, water utility pros are quickly discovering the data payoff they get with AMR.

Quelling Customer Complaints

Information is power when it comes to resolving customer complaints. That's what the team at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) has discovered by using a fixed-network radio frequency system that now reaches approximately 75,000 of the utility's 83,000 accounts. Installed and serviced by Cellnet, the AMR system plugs PWSA's customer service representatives into detailed account data through UtilityDataLink (UDL), an online portal to consumption data that has been recorded at 15-minute intervals and downloaded to UDL daily.

"UDL gives us online access to readings on an as-needed basis," said Greg Tutsock, executive director of PWSA. "Our representatives pull out the most recent reading from an account or get historical information for 30 days. We can show water usage patterns -- sometimes pointing them out to customers on a day-by-day basis. Often, we prevail in bill disputes because we have this documentation."

Utilities don't need fixed-network systems to pull historic data off a meter read. In Auburn Hills, MI, customer service representatives dealing with a complicated bill dispute can now dispatch a field technician to pull 72 days worth of hourly reads off the Datamatic Firefly meter interface units (MIUs) that store consumption information. Like PWSA, Auburn Hills uses eye-opening usage data in answering customer questions and billing complaints.

"This takes pressure off the city to prove the bill is correct," said Ron Melchert, deputy director of public services for Auburn Hills. "We've gone through hourly usage with a customer and had him realize, 'Oh, that was when my grandson left the hose running in the garden,' or 'That was when my roommate had company.'"

The system in Auburn Hills provides usage reports complete with bar graphs to show to incredulous customers. "Usually, when you have a bill dispute with a customer, you go through time-consuming interaction, and if you can't convince the customer the bill is accurate, you may be asked to change out the meter," Melchert said. "AMR data draws attention away from the meter and allows us to get the customer's confidence quickly. We spend much less time resolving bill disputes now."

Enhancing Service

In billing conflicts, AMR data tends to help the utility, but Pittsburgh has big plans for putting its data to work helping customers as well. Ahead, the utility hopes to offer value-added services:

- Consolidated and on-demand billing: PWSA has a number of accounts in which one responsible party pays multiple bills. "We have a major university that receives bills in almost half our billing cycles because of how meters were read in the past," Tutsock said. "They'd like one bill, and in the future, we'd like to offer that. With AMR, it doesn't matter what billing cycle you're in. We hope to give customers one bill for all the properties they're responsible for and offer consumers the opportunity to pick their billing date."

- Consumption reports: For larger customers, PWSA can provide daily or even hourly consumption reports, allowing C&I users the chance to use water usage data in planning their manufacturing schedules, looking for leaks, changing processes within their businesses and more. The purpose: to help those customers make smarter business decisions regarding water use.

- Leak notification: "We have many customers who travel south for the winter, and some ask us to monitor consumption on their account," Tutsock said. "Here, power can go out, pipes can freeze and a leak may result. Once we have our AMR system completely rolled out, we can offer leak notification on a wider scale."

The utility currently monitors data against high/low parameters, looking for variations that might signal leaks, meter problems or possibly even theft of service.

"Eventually we want our customer information system to identify unusual usage patterns so that we can contact customers immediately when a significant change in usage occurs," Tutsock said.

Fine-Tuning Operations

Leak detection is likely to be a boon for the utility, as well. Tutsock estimates the utility may plug system leaks accounting for 10 percent to 15 percent of the 65 million gallons it processes each day.

"We can look at how much water we're putting into a pressure district, read all the meters in that district and see what differential exists," he said. "If there's a large differential in the numbers, we can examine that part of the system for leaks. If the differential is small, it may simply be due to municipal uses such as fire hydrants or irrigation in unmetered parks."

Another operations application PWSA is considering is the metering of its sewer lines.

"Overflows in sewers are illegal. For regulatory purposes, we could monitor flows in sewers using our AMR system," Tutsock said, adding that today, the utility sends people out each week to inspect and collect data on sewer facilities.

Billing cycle consolidations may be in the works at PWSA too. From an operational standpoint, Tutsock envisions freeing up manpower and computer time by reducing the number of billing runs completed each month.

Although most of the AMR applications discussed at PWSA are yet to come, the company already has reaped significant benefits from AMR, according to Tutsock.

"We're still in the early stages of looking at benefits and determining all the ways we can use our AMR system," Tutsock said. "Results so far indicate we made the right technology decision."

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