HybridS: No Longer Just for Cars

Georgia Utility Employs Both Mobile and Fixed Networking for Meter Reading
Pam Malone — Dec 23, 2011

As the saying goes, “The more you peel an onion, the more you discover.” The same can be said for selecting and deploying an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system. Holding the AMI onion in your hand, you think you know all there is to know about it. However, as your list of wants and needs becomes more defined, you discover that choosing the right AMI system seems more complex with each layer revealed.

It may seem like all AMI solutions are built the same, with AMI vendors promising operational efficiency, improved customer service and system integrity. So where do you start? What are the different layers of the AMI solution?

Will Rogers once said that an onion can make people cry, but there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh. This is the story of how one utility in northern Georgia found both laughter and tears when deciding which AMI system was right for them. Though AMI systems are no laughing matter, there’s no use crying over them either. With the right tools, in-depth research and information, you can discover what type of AMI system is right for you.

Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority


Lori Camp, Billing and Customer Service Supervisor at Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority (DDCWSA), knew the utility needed to solve some problems. Over time, reading meters manually —  even with a handheld device — became inefficient and it didn’t eliminate misreads, rereads or customer billing complaints. She knew all the buzzwords and acronyms, but didn’t know where to begin finding out if an AMI system was the right solution for DDCWSA; and if it were right, which type of system would address the utility’s immediate and long-term needs.

Needs Identification Phase


Similar to other water utilities embarking on an AMI program, DDCWSA formed a committee, and began examining specific departments and employees who would most likely be impacted by an AMI system. A sampling of employees was selected to be members of a special “AMI Impact” committee with representation from Purchasing, IT, Billing, Customer Service, Engineering and Meter Reading Departments.
At first it seemed daunting to try to reconcile the wants and needs of so many functional areas into one cohesive unit. One employee even questioned whether any one AMI vendor could deliver the right combination of products and services to keep all stakeholders happy.

Fortunately, each group played its part. Purchasing investigated the different AMI vendors and developed the appropriate bid specifications, formal Request for Proposal (RFP) and purchasing documents. Additionally, they researched whether one system was capable of retrieving at least 40 days of hourly interval data from meters whether gathered with a fixed network or mobile collection system. Also important to Douglasville was transparency in the evaluation process and that equal consideration be given to each competing vendor.

The IT department evaluated each competing system’s ability to integrate AMI meter reading data into its billing software. Meanwhile, Billing wanted to know if the file transfers could be prepared to easily create a bill. Customer Service staff needed assurance that the data collected could be easily communicated to the end-user customer as an aid in resolving billing disputes. At the same time, Engineering was looking to see if an AMI system would enable the department to analyze flow rates, aggregated consumption and reverse flow from the datalogging information coming in from the AMI system. The Meter Reading department was equally concerned with ensuring that the read rate accuracy would not be compromised within the diverse topography of DDCWSA’s service area. Lastly, the utility wanted to be sure that the communications hardware would be compatible with different water meter types and installed and managed professionally.

AMI Solution and Vendor Selection Process


DDCWSA gathered a list of AMI vendors and asked each company to make an informal presentation of its AMI solutions, products and services. It became clear after the initial presentations and product demonstrations that not all AMI systems are made equally. The differences were quite distinct. So, the utility decided to develop an RFP to guide it through the vendor selection process. Doing so gave DDCWSA more flexibility to select the right solution tailored to the utility’s specific needs and not be limited to a supplier’s off-the-shelf offering.

The criteria outlined by DDCWSA were comprehensive, including compatibility with diverse brands of existing water meters. Additionally, the RFP required that the AMI system being proposed wouldn’t interfere with its existing SCADA equipment and that the system would seamlessly integrate into the utility billing system. Finally, for communication infrastructure, the utility required the vendor to utilize utility-owned property only, primarily for the placement of cellular data collectors that eliminate the need for additional land acquisition.
Evaluation of each competitive RFP was also done by committee. The committee asked many questions, including, but not limited to: Did the vendor address each of the requirements outlined in the RFP? Did the vendor have the required experience integrating collected meter data into its billing software? Is the proposed system cost effective for the utility to operate? The list of questions seemed to be endless.

Each open-ended question revealed another layer of the “AMI onion.” This is where the potential for tears came in to play. In DDCWSA’s case, the box of tissues used to help absorb the tears turned out to be a proposal evaluation form. This tool enabled each department to evaluate the proposals from its own point of view. It asked each representative to rank the RFP responses related to each department’s wants and needs.

The Right Choice — Itron’s Hybrid AMI Solution


In the end, what DDCWSA thought it wanted at the beginning of their journey was not what it chose. The signs pointed to different paths. The path less obvious — but often the most valuable —  was the hybrid path. That is, an AMI system consisting of multiple collection options —  a combination of both mobile and fixed network meter reading. It assured a read-rate reliability threshold of 99 percent across the entire service territory regardless of the time of year, rain or snow, lush spring foliage or sparse tree limbs in fall. Additionally, the hybrid method enables detailed data logging regardless of whether mobile or fixed network meter reading is used.

Itron provided a future-proof AMI system called “ChoiceConnect” that is migratable without having to change out embedded hardware. The system delivered the same meter read data to customer service representatives regardless of how the data were collected. Moreover, the system took into account the initial upfront costs with an eye toward long-term return on investment. As desired by DDCWSA, ChoiceConnect was seamlessly integrated into the utility’s existing billing software and system deployment was professionally managed.

Camp advises: “Know your topography and how it may impact a meter-reading system. Let the vendor demonstrate and manage the software integration within the confines of your legacy or planned IT system. Leverage the wide variety of data collection devices at your disposal, including handhelds, drive-by automated meter reading (AMR) and fixed network communications. Make sure not only to accurately collect your data but also let software empower your utility to analyze it for the benefit of you and your customers.”

Peeling the AMI “onion” layer by layer could make you cry; however, each layer that is peeled away can also help you discover more than you knew before. What you think you want actually may not be the right solution for your utility. Thinking outside of the box often reveals the best solutions. In DDCWSA’s case, a hybrid system was just what they needed.

Pam Malone is Vice President, Strategic Development, for Itron.

Background


Utility: Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority
Contact: Lori Camp
Location: 30 miles west of
Atlanta, Ga.
Service connections: 42,000 over 200 square miles

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