Insights and Integration
Over the past several years, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has become the gold standard for electric, gas, and water utilities looking to take advantage of the advancements that technology now provides. Nevertheless, not all utilities have migrated to AMI, and some still consider automated meter reading (AMR) the simpler and more cost-effective technology.
However, while the acronyms AMR and AMI may look similar, they represent two very different paradigms. AMR focuses on a specific operation, while AMI is a far more complete application that allows for two-way communication and is rich in data and resultant insights as well as interactive. To frame this another way, AMR creates a billing relationship with customers whereas AMI is about insights and interaction.
Originally, AMR represented an advancement from the original manual process of reading meters, which entailed meter readers walking around their routes with a book, physically looking at a meter and writing a number down in the book. With AMR, collecting the data became automated and digital.
The first iteration of AMR was called “walk-by.” People were still going out into the field, but this time, they would walk up to each meter with a wand-like device and touch each sensor pad. Walk-by then progressed into a drive-by system that involved putting a radio in a truck and driving down the street by customers’ homes or businesses to collect meter reads. However, while each of these solutions automated the meter reading process, neither eliminated the need to have someone go out to the field to collect the information.
That said, AMR walk-by and drive-by are easy to implement, relatively inexpensive and quick to put in place because the utility only has to put an endpoint on each meter and send their people into the field. No network infrastructure is required.
Still, these methods provide information only when someone touches or drives by the meter — and this typically occurs just once a month. While AMR became more sophisticated and endpoints would sometimes store multiple readings over time, 30 days for example, the increase in the amount of data did not make that information any timelier.
Evolving to AMI
In contrast, AMI is fixed in place, and works all the time — automatically with no manual intervention. With AMI, the endpoints now transmit data, usually over an RF network, to a permanently installed collector, such as a privately built collector network or public cell tower, rather than transmitting it to either a wand or a truck. That collector hears the endpoints around it, gathers all those readings, and then automatically sends them back to the utility without the need for personnel to be deployed into the field.
AMI offers significant advantages over its predecessor when it comes to data collection. Among these are reducing labor costs to send meter readers into the field, along with decreasing the expense of maintaining a fleet of trucks and, from a sustainability standpoint, the fleet’s carbon footprint.
But the greatest advantages of AMI are the timeliness of the data it collects and the power of the insights it provides.
As an example, the Aclara RF AMI system for water, in its default state, reads meters every hour and sends the readings every six hours. It is also capable of reading meters at significantly shorter intervals, based on a utility’s needs. This means that the oldest reading was gathered six hours ago versus 30 days ago. The AMI system provides 24-hour-a-day data every day — data that is regular, much closer to real time, and very granular. AMR cannot provide this level of information.
This kind of information yields numerous benefits including greater customer satisfaction with billing. With AMR, if a customer’s toilet begins to leak today but the utility’s truck drove by yesterday, the customer might not be aware of the leak until the next bill is generated. Utilities without AMI often bill quarterly, and these bills may be estimated. Leaks could go on for months before being discovered, resulting in large bills. With AMI, that leak would be quickly detected and flagged by technology designed for this purpose.
These technologies can also detect a continuous flow situation, where at no time in 24 hours was the customer using zero water. Once the utility knows this, it can contact the customer so they can take care of the leak and avoid getting an enormous bill. This prompt attention also helps conserve water resources, which is vital in drought-stricken or water-scarce areas.
From the utility’s viewpoint, this also helps cut down on non-revenue and wasted water, especially if the utility writes down part of an extensive bill.
Strengthening Customer Relationships
Flagging this type of situation for a customer also creates the opportunity for a much higher degree of customer engagement. That is one of the key differences between AMR and AMI.
With AMR, customers have a billing relationship with their utility. It’s designed to be a one-way system. AMI, on the other hand, is designed to be two-way. It not only collects and reads data, it can also push out information. With AMI, customer relationships can become much deeper as more and more data become available and communication is enhanced. With AMI, utilities can translate information from disparate sources into insights and actions that create value. This is a critical factor in a world where customer engagement and satisfaction have become increasingly important.
This trend is evident in the water industry, where engagement with customers has become ever more important. Consumer engagement programs for customers of water utilities, for example, deliver personalized content that enables customers to better understand their utility bills, offer transparency into consumption patterns, and provide ways to reduce their overall costs. These applications, including Aclara ACE® software, generate succinct, direct, and personalized messages for users that keep them informed of changes to their costs due to weather or other factors, consumption patterns, and savings tips that help them control their costs.
The Future of AMI
Fifteen years ago, when AMI was new, AMR was still considered to be a big advance, as it saved time and reduced billing errors over the traditional manual data collection processes. It was also less expensive than AMI. In some cases, AMR still satisfies a utility’s more basic needs for a straightforward billing platform. But for most utilities, AMI has become an essential way to modernize and enhance their operations.
So, what is the future of AMI? There’s always going to be some form or fashion of AMI going forward. But what will it look like? Will we have standalone AMI networks? Is AMI going to pull in the smart city concept? Is it going to be consumed under the smart city concept? Is it going to be taking advantage of public networks, for example?
Although there is a lot of speculation and visioning about what an AMI network will look like in the future, the functionality is going to be around forever, enabling utilities to not only monitor the meter for billing purposes but, just as importantly, understand what’s going on in the network as well. That is going to continue to grow.
Looking forward, the AMI network will be smart as well as robust. It will help utilities gain more visibility into their operations, better manage their networks, more effectively engage with their customers, cut down on manual intervention, and ensure accuracy of information. In short, AMI will do what AMR cannot by providing a wealth of data to help utilities future-proof their networks and make good, well-informed decisions about moving forward. WW