The Benefits of AMI Are Many…If You’re Prepared

Considerations for a smooth transition to AMI

PHOTO: CITY OF SAN DIEGO UTILITIES

For Arwa Sayed, the move made sense: By investing in an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system, the city of San Diego’s public utilities department would both save money, and provide more accurate billing for its water customers. The key, though, was to explain the benefits clearly to those end users, says Sayed, AMI project manager with the customer support division of the city of San Diego’s public utilities department. The city needed the support of its users if the installation of its AMI system was to be a successful one.

“A lot of our consumers seem to be interested in having more information about their water use,” she says. “AMI allows us to provide them with that information. But we needed to make sure that our customers understood this, that they understood that this new system will ultimately benefit them.”

Using advanced metering technology, utilities can quickly spot spikes in water usage, a tool that allows them to quickly detect and repair leaks before they turn into larger problems. Utilities can use AMI tech to more accurately measure the water that their end users consume, saving the utilities a significant amount of dollars in the process.

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AMI also gives utilities the tools they need to better serve their customers. When customers call them to complain about a jump in their water bills, utilities can provide these end users with detailed data showing when exactly a spike in usage occurred. Maybe an end user has forgotten that she filled her backyard swimming pool earlier in the month. By pointing to a sudden jump in water consumption on a specific date, utility customer service reps might jog the end user’s memory.

These benefits are well known to utility officials. It’s why so many are investing in AMI systems.

But to reach these benefits, utility officials must make sure, too, that their consumers and employees understand the benefits as well. Educating consumers–and, often, city council and board members–is a key to getting AMI programs approved. And educating employees? Utilities won’t realize all the benefits of an AMI system if their employees don’t understand how they work and why they are important.

A Plan in San Diego
This is why San Diego utility officials planned their AMI installation so carefully. The city utility serves 275,000 water accounts. The utility’s AMI rollout, though, isn’t targeting all of these users. Instead, the utility–which was in the middle of a planned 18-month installation process in the late spring–will implement AMI technology on just 11,000 accounts, 10,000 commercial ones, and 1,000 residential ones.

This ratio was planned. Sayed says that the commercial accounts consume the most water. Equipping these accounts with AMI technology would bring the greatest return, she says.

After the initial rollout is complete, utility officials plan to study the results during a six-month period before they make any decisions regarding expanding their program.

“There are a lot of benefits with AMI. But those benefits are different for every utility,” says Sayed. “We want to go through those six months to determine what our own benefits are, what benefits we’d expect to receive from a larger installation.”

San Diego utility officials also took steps to educate their end users about the new system and the benefits it would provide them.

Sayed says that the utility created a website for its customers explaining AMI and the installation. The utility has also held public meetings to discuss the technology with its end users.

The meetings focus largely on how customers can access their online water accounts and use the data contained in them. Once consumers know how to read their water consumption data, many of them will become frequent online visitors to their accounts, using the online tool to monitor their water use as a way to save money on each monthly water bill, Sayed says.

“A lot of customers are interested in this,” she says. “When you have customers with large accounts especially–such as the commercial users–I would think they would be curious about their water and where it is going. For companies and agencies, this tool can help them predict and project their water usage in their budgets. There are always expenses that go with water use. This will help them determine those expenses, too.”

Image: NeptuneView consumption with alerts

Image: Neptune
View consumption with alerts

 

Reaching End Users
Steve Feeney, director of sales support and system deployment with Tallassee, AL-based Neptune Technology Group, says that utilities should follow San Diego’s lead. He believes that educating consumers is the key to a successful AMI rollout.

“It can be difficult for sure to educate consumers,” he says. “There are folks who don’t understand why a utility would ever need more than a monthly read of their water meters. For the most part, utilities have to actively convey the message that AMI will result in more accurate water bills. They have to take some action so that people understand what the benefits of AMI are.”

How can utilities spread the word to their end users? Feeney recommends that they do all they can to reach their customers. This could include mailers sent to end users. It might mean public announcements on local radio or TV stations. Online information helps, too.

Even then, some customers might not care about the benefits that AMI brings. They might not ever create an online account and might never check their usage.

“Traditional residential customers are a mixed bag,” says Feeney. “In regions of the country where there are water shortages and there are demands on residential users to control their water usage, you’ll usually see more interest. In other parts of the country, though, interest is usually less. Beyond people who are environmentally conscious, most users are passive about their water use, assuming that their water bills are reasonable and manageable.”

Commercial customers, though, are different.

And customers that consume a significant amount of water each year tend to have a lot of interest in how much water they are using and whether they are consuming more than usual. They will more frequently log onto online accounts to monitor their monthly water consumption.

Rick Davis, AMI solutions product manager with Mansfield, TX-based Master Meter, says that utilities that engage with their customers early and often will have an advantage over those that don’t.

That’s partly because of the Internet, Davis says. The online world is filled with useful information about smart meter technology and its benefits. But it’s also dotted with incorrect information from critics who say that smart meters come with such negatives as automatic price increases and potential safety hazards.

It’s up to utilities, then, to spread correct information about AMI early enough so that the majority of their end users don’t believe the false information spread by online critics, Davis says.

“The worst thing is to go out and start changing things out and then the public finds out,” he says. “The smart meter tag concerns some people. The quicker utilities can dispel unfounded rumors, the better off they’ll be.”

This job–educating end users–doesn’t end after utilities complete their AMI installations. Davis says that utilities must consistently highlight the benefits and cost savings that AMI systems bring. That way, if utilities need to expand their systems in the future, getting support from the public will be an easier task.

It’s important, for example, for utilities to give consumers many ways to access their water use information once an AMI system is installed. Utilities should create Web portals, of course, that consumers can log into to track their water use. But they should also set up systems that send alerts to consumers’ phones or e-mail accounts every time these end users’ water usage spikes to unnatural levels or reaches a specific level during a billing period.

“It’s important to provide tangible information at the consumer level,” says Davis. “That builds consensus for AMI. It takes away much of the mystery of what AMI is and what it can do for consumers.”

He points to a phone app that utilities working with Master Meter can provide to their end users. Users can flag their water accounts when they are traveling, putting a limit on how much water their home should consume during their absence. Because they monitor water usage continuously, AMI systems can then notify utilities if the water use from a particular end user soars past a set limit.

Utilities can then send employees to investigate. Maybe a water pipe has burst during a homeowner’s vacation. Maybe a large leak has sprouted. “Before, these owners would return to a flooded basement,” says Davis. “Now with AMI they have a tool that can alert them when something is wrong. That can save their home from a lot of damage. That is one of the benefits that AMI can bring. And it’s the kind of benefit that utilities need to advertise to their customers.”

Selling the Staff
Winning over end users is a necessity. But just as critical to winning support for an AMI installation? Utilities must make sure that their employees are supportive of the tech upgrade and educated on how AMI works and what changes the new tech will bring to their duties.

And utilities must clarify that AMI doesn’t mean that meter readers and other employees will lose their jobs. Utility officials must explain that employees that used to spend time manually reading meters or driving by smart meters in their vehicles will now perform more important duties, such as handling customer phone calls or analyzing water usage data.

Shannon Sweeney, water resources manager at the City of Santa Maria, CA, oversaw that city’s recently completed upgrade to the FlexNet AMI system from manufacturer Sensus. Before the city conducted a FlexNet pilot program in 2009, Santa Maria utility officials had to explain that AMI would not cost employees their jobs. It would just change them, and for the better.

“We have a small staff. We knew that if we upgraded to AMI, we could significantly reduce the amount of meter reading we had to do,” says Sweeney. “Today we can read all of our meters in less than three days.”

Before the AMI upgrade, Santa Maria employed two full-time meter readers. After the installation, one of the meter readers became an operator. The second is still considered a meter reader but is now responsible for making sure that water data is successfully transferred to the utility’s billing software. This employee also searches for possible water leaks.

This is a trend at utilities. AMI upgrades do not automatically result in the mass firings of meter readers or other utility employees. This is a message that utilities need to provide their employees at the early stages of the AMI discussion.

“We have been able to allocate our staff to more pertinent duties,” says Sweeney. “The AMI system reads water usage data hourly. That’s so much better than a monthly reading.”

Santa Maria officials took an important step to make sure that employees supported the transition to AMI. They worked directly with in-house staffers to plan the AMI upgrade. “By doing the work in-house, we were able to ensure better quality control,” says Sweeney. “Our staffers are the ones who have to deal with any repercussions if something goes wrong. It was important, then, to include them from the earliest stages of this upgrade.”

Feeney says that it’s natural for employees to worry that an AMI upgrade can cost them their jobs, especially when these employees are meter readers. After all, one of the prime reasons for utilities to upgrade to AMI is to reduce the number of water meters that must be read manually. What employees must understand, though, is that utilities still need skilled workers, even after they upgrade to AMI technology, Feeney says.

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“While there are almost always fewer meter readers after an AMI upgrade, you’ll find that these upgrades usually don’t result in a reduction in headcount,” says Feeney. “Most meter readers move into new positions.”

For instance, meters will still need maintenance. Employees will still need to visit meters to keep their water distribution system running efficiently. Other utilities will move meter readers to customer service or data analysis jobs.

“Most utilities are pretty active with their employees,” says Feeney. “They make sure they understand what the system means. They make sure they understand that the net impact isn’t that they will lose their jobs. Utilities upgrade to AMI for any number of reasons. They want to save money. They want to improve customer service. They want to reduce lost water. Most utilities are pretty active in educating their employees about what they are doing.”

Photo: City of Santa MariaProgramming transmitter

Photo: City of Santa Maria
Programming transmitter

Promoting the Benefits
For Sweeney, the move to AMI technology has paid off. End users receive more information about their water use, and, armed with this data, can make changes to consume less water and lower their water bills. At the same time, thanks to accurate billing, Santa Maria has boosted its water revenue. It has also been able to quickly identify and fix system leaks before they grow into more serious problems.

“Now we can see when meters are stuck much sooner. We can fix them sooner. That is an important revenue retention measure,” says Sweeney. “We can find leaks so much sooner. That has helped our revenue, too. If end users have a leak and then fix it, they can ask for a leak adjustment from us. The dollar amount that we are spending on those adjustments has gone down. We no longer are paying out for two- to three-month leak adjustments. There is a lot less water being wasted because of leaks.”

Santa Maria officials estimate that its water customers will save about $100,000 every year just from the improved leak detection that AMI brings. Officials also estimated that the AMI upgrade would save 86 million gallons of water in just the first year following the full installation of the advanced technology, something that will reduce the amount of water Santa Maria will have to purchase from the state of California.

Davis says that it’s important for utilities planning an AMI upgrade to take note of such benefits from real-life AMI installations. They then need to promote these benefits to both the public, who will appreciate knowing that an upgrade will provide a revenue boost to their utility and potentially lower water bills for them, and their employees, who will also appreciate that their employer can boost its financial health through an upgrade.

Why Not More?
The benefits of an AMI upgrade are powerful ones. As Feeney says, utilities that struggle today with high meter-reading costs can significantly reduce their expenses immediately by upgrading to AMI.

Other utilities might struggle to provide their customers with satisfactory answers to billing complaints. AMI can resolve this issue, too, giving utility employees access to in-depth usage numbers and the information they need to help end users identify the reasons behind any sudden spikes in their monthly water bills.

Then there are lost-water costs. As Feeney says, utilities often distribute a significant amount of water for which they never bill. With AMI technology, utilities can reduce these lost-water costs and accurately bill for the water they pay to distribute.

That leads to the obvious question: Why aren’t a greater number of utilities installing AMI systems?

According to Feeney, some utilities just don’t have a demand for AMI. Those, though, tend to be “few and far between.” He adds that it’s not easy finding any water utility that wouldn’t benefit from upgrading to AMI.

It’s cost, then, that is the main reason why more utilities haven’t upgraded.

“There are budgetary concerns,” says Davis. “AMI is more expensive than is automated meter reading [AMR], because it involves a more robust infrastructure. In an AMR solution, you put in smart meters and collect data from a vehicle. In the AMI scenario, that all expands. You have to take into account fixed-base infrastructure such as receiving towers and repeating devices. The utility is going to have to build a network of some sort to retrieve the readings in an AMI system.”

It’s true that AMI systems will save utilities money over the long haul. But it’s also true that many utilities are still facing tight budgets. They might not have the upfront money to invest in AMI, even if they can prove that the savings from the upgrades will quickly pay back these dollars.

“The costs of an AMI installation can vary quite a bit,” says Davis. “Topography comes into play. The size and scope of the water distribution system matters. What the utility wants to get out of the system can impact the cost. The logistics are significantly more complex with AMI.”

Given this, Master Meter’s Davis and Neptune Technology Group’s Feeney both say that they expect more utilities to upgrade to AMI in the future. The benefits are just too powerful for this not to happen.

And these upgrades will get easier as a growing number of utilities successfully update to AMI, Feeney says. “The utilities have improved tremendously as far as adopting the technology and transitioning to it. They have more resources available to them from vendors.”

He adds, “They can get a lot of feedback from their colleagues and industry organizations on how to go through a smooth transition. They can get firsthand advice on what they need to prepare for. There is more support available today to increase the chances that a utility will have a smooth transition to AMI.”

In San Diego, utility officials are looking forward to enjoying the benefits of AMI technology, Sayed says. “As with everything in technology, you have to move on,” she says. “You have to update your systems. You want your customers to get the best tech they can get. It’s a great way for us to enhance our accuracy and efficiency.

“And it will help us with water conservation,” she adds. “We want to be proactive with our water usage. We don’t want to have to wait so long to discover that we have a leak.” WE_bug_web

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