Metering Marvel: AMR Ushers in Era of Efficiency for City

An early adopter of automated meter reading, the city of Red Bluff, CA, continues to upgrade its metering systems to keep pace with new technologies. Improved reading time allows the Red Bluff team to attend to other projects and to increase billing frequency.

John Garcia 1305ww

By John Fillinger

As municipal budgets continue to tighten, many communities across the country are trying to stretch their resources and do more with less. At the same time, aging infrastructures and water shortages mean it's more important than ever to have progressive technologies such as Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) in place to support early leak detection.

John Garcia 1305ww
Prior to changing out metering equipment at a multi-family residence, John Garcia, senior water systems maintenance worker at Red Bluff, completes paperwork that will be used by the Water Utility Billing Department to update account information.

The city of Red Bluff, Calif., was an early adopter of AMR technology, installing its first AMR system from Badger Meter in 1991 to improve water utility efficiency and worker health and safety. Before the system was installed, meter readers needed to bend down and lift each of the more than 4,000 pit lids during each reading cycle. Deploying a mobile reading system enabled Red Bluff to read its meters while driving by in a vehicle, saving time and alleviating worker disability issues due to back injury claims from repetitive lifting.

Since then, there have been significant advances in meter reading technology. To keep pace with progress, the city is upgrading its system to a Badger Meter Orion® CE AMR system. According to Marvin Eckels, water division supervisor at Red Bluff, the partially-deployed new system already has reduced total reading cycle time for the city's 4,800 meters from three weeks to about five days. Currently 4,000 accounts are monitored using AMR technology, and 800 are monitored manually. Once the remaining 800 manually-read meters are replaced with new meters equipped with AMR technology, Eckels estimates total reading time will be as low as seven hours. In addition, the upgraded Red Bluff system is fully compliant with FCC Narrowbanding requirements for mobile radio systems.

Improved reading time allows the Red Bluff team to attend to other projects and to increase billing frequency.

"The overall meter read time is much, much faster with the new system," Eckels said. "Once it is fully deployed, the quicker speed will enable us to read meters at monthly intervals, instead of bimonthly. That means more time for us to handle more critical maintenance and repair projects. In addition, the amount of information that is gathered with the Orion system will help us monitor potential customer leaks and meter vandalism more quickly and easily."

Located about 125 miles north of Sacramento in northern California's Shasta Cascade region, the city of Red Bluff provides water to 14,000 residents from 14 wells and 2-3 million gallon water storage facilities. The wells vary in depth from 250 feet to 625 feet, with capacities from 480 to 2,400 gallons per minute.

The Orion upgrade includes replacing 4,000 existing AMR meter registers and transmitters with new Badger Meter Recordall® Transmitter Registers (RTRs) and Orion radios, as well as replacing older manually-read meters that have reached their life expectancy. Eckels and the Water Division's three other employees are handling the installation process. The first phase, which included changing out registers and transmitters, was completed over several years. The second phase, which includes replacing older meters, is slated for completion in 2015.

"We are able to handle the installation ourselves as time allows, which makes it very economical," Eckels said. "For the majority of meters, we simply took off the existing register and replaced it with a new one. Now, we are changing out the manual meters that require a complete meter replacement."

"The meters are 'asleep' when they are shipped to us. They aren't using battery power until they are activated, which happens when you run .1 cubic foot of water through them, and then the radio transmitter starts working from there. So, if they sit in storage for six months before they are installed, the battery isn't being discharged. Plus, with the new technology, the battery life is about double what it was before," he said.

20-year battery life

Additional components of the new system include a Panasonic® Toughbook® laptop with a global positioning system and an Orion Trimble® Ranger handheld computer. The laptop is used for reading meters from a vehicle. According to Eckels, it can pick up meter signals from as far as two blocks away, about twice the distance of the older system. The Trimble Ranger is capable of reprogramming meters as well as trouble shooting.

"If somebody breaks a wire, we can repair it in the field and then use the Trimble to recalibrate the register and synchronize it with the system again," Eckels said.

Future Upgrades

The new system integrates easily with Red Bluff's existing older billing system, but the city is looking forward to replacing its billing software with Orion ReadCenter® Analytics. This will enable the city to take full advantage of the AMR system, including monitoring and automated leak detection.

When it runs monthly billing reports with the new software, the city will be able to flag potential leaks. Then, it can check the meter and notify the customer if a leak is suspected.

About the Author: John Fillinger is director of utility marketing at Badger Meter and has more than 18 years of experience in the water utility industry. An expert in meter reading technologies, he speaks regularly about the benefits of AMR systems for utilities' overall system performance. He is an active member of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Automatic Meter Reading Association (AMRA).

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