Automation of gas and water meters at the City of Richmond, Virginia, first occurred around 1988. The initial monies to fund this project were introduced as part of the 1995 five-year capital improvement programme (CIP). The City’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) experimented with approximately 200 gas meters on the rooftops of some of the buildings in our historic downtown Shockoe Bottom area. These meters were retrofitted with Itron, Inc.’s gas encoder, receiver, transmitters (ERTs), and were read with handheld data-caps retrofitted with radio frequency modules and wands.  

There was some success with this pilot project, and the  possibilities of automating our entire gas and water system were recognised. The decision to issue an RFP was made in 1998. Itron made the winning bid and a contract was finalised in November 1999.

The simultaneous automation of both gas and water meters, combined with the limited amount of funding in the initial CIP, meant that time was spent on identifying the best approach to make this a successful project. At that time DPU was – and still is – the only utility in the country to automate both gas and water premises at the same time. Therefore we could not benchmark with any other utility with a similar AMR project.

Our customer base includes the City of Richmond and the adjacent counties of Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield. The population of Richmond City is approximately 190,000, and the service area population is approximately 750,000. Our utility service area covers 550 square miles. The DPU is the seventh largest municipally owned gas utility in the country, with eight gate stations, more than 1,800 miles of gas main lines and 1,250 miles of water pipe lines. 110,000 gas and 64,000 water meters required automation. Commercial meter technicians are currently completing the automation of the larger commercial and industrial meters (5,600 gas and 3,200 water meters).

AMR projects contracted with Itron were turnkey operations, co-managed by the Itron project manager and our internal AMR project team. This team, made up of myself, Preston Brown and Robert Travis, used an Excel application with inserted graphs on Word documents to monitor and report actual production to production goals.

GAS FIRST

Water is more difficult and more costly to automate, and we needed additional information on water automation alternatives, so we decided to automate gas only customers in the outlying county areas first. We ‘inherited’ enough funding in the CIP gas budget to fully automate the county gas customers. This gave us time to analyse additional capital funding needs to complete both the water and gas AMR projects, and to request these funds in future years’ budgets. It also gave us the opportunity to become familiar with using the Read One Link ‘from host’ and ‘to host’ processes before getting into the more complicated water automation project. Additionally, the hardest to read areas, requiring the most meter reading resources, were the county areas. By automating these areas first, fewer meter readers were required for manual reads while we were automating within the City limits.

We completed the 50,000 gas only county customer base in 18 months. During this time, we requested additional funding for both projects and also determined the best strategy for water automation. Water automation began in November 2000 – approximately 10 months after we began the gas only county project. The water project initially encompassed certain cycles within the City containing primarily water only premises. These cycles were completed with the carryover funding from the 1995 CIP water budget. This allowed us to keep the project going until we received additional funding to complete automation of remaining gas and water meters located on the same premises within the City limits.

Initially we thought we could change the registers on the existing water meters and replace them with pre-wired (potted) electronic registers. However, once we determined the cost of the registers only, versus the costs of replacing the entire meter to include a potted register, we decided to do a complete water meter change-out as part of the project. This was advantageous from a cost standpoint because new meters replaced older inaccurate meters in the system. Both of these factors are very important when considering revenue protection issues. In mid-2000 an RFP was issued and the contract was awarded to Badger Meter Inc.

Automating both gas and water simultaneously was challenging. Once the project was underway, we were faced with resolving issues unique to the individual gas and water utilities respectively.

AUTOMATION CHALLENGES

Some of the biggest challenges in gas automation were making appointments with customers to automate inside gas meters and/or making appointments to re-light gas appliances when gas meters had to be changed. We set up an AMR call centre, and a voice prompt was also added to the main DPU customer service phone line, directing AMR-related questions or issues to the AMR call centre. The call centre scheduled and monitored gas project appointments, and reduced the volume of AMR-related calls to the DPU customer service call centre.

The water AMR project presented us with a different set of issues. All of our water premises are outside pit sets, and mud and other debris in the pits have to be removed before the meter can be automated. Other harsh realities involved automating these outside pit sets during inclement weather.

We also experienced field installation errors related to the attachment and torquing of the end caps to the ERT antennas, and with ERT programming. In order to resolve this, we negotiated and changed some of the processes with Itron and Badger Meters. Instead of field attachments, Itron attached the cable and end caps to the ERTs, and torqued the ERTs at their manufacturing plant. They shipped the attached cable and end cap units to Badger, who then potted the cable into the RTR register and programmed the ERT at its plant. These changes eliminated 100% of the field installation problems previously experienced. We were the first utility in the AMR industry to initiate these processes, and now it is common practice for all water AMR systems and meter vendors.

Other issues unique to the water project involved placement of the ERT in the pit, and how to obtain a radio frequency (RF) read with metal water box lids. We issued an RFP requesting solutions to these problems. A contract was awarded to Armorcast Products Company of North Hollywood, CA. Armorcast provided polymer concrete lids which were Itron approved. and which allowed our data command units (DCU) in the mobile vans to obtain radio frequency reads. There are also slots under the lid cover to hang the ERT/antenna, which keeps it out of the water and mud, and further ensures accurate radio frequency reads.

PARTNERSHIPS BENEFIT EVERYONE

We partnered in some other ‘firsts’ that enhanced our AMR projects. For instance, we served as a Beta Site for Itron to test its new bubble-up frequency for water ERTs. This allows utilities having difficulty in obtaining a dedicated radio frequency licence from the FCC to use the bubble-up frequency as an alternative. We tested the bubble-up frequency reads at 200 water premises; results were good, and we kept the installed ERTs at these sites at no additional cost to our utility.

We also tested Itron’s new commercial ERTs at 30 sites, and these tests proved successful too. As a result, we were able to buy a better commercial ERT product, as well as keep the 30 installed commercial ERTs at no additional cost. Finally, we served as the Beta Site to test Itron’s new mobile data collector, a smaller, more powerful and versatile version of the DCU. These tests also benefited the AMR industry as a whole, especially for those utilities considering future automation projects.

In a good faith effort to assist other utilities who were anticipating automation, we shared the things we learned, both positive and negative, during our automation projects. In return, we have networked with some of these utilities as they have successfully started their own AMR projects and we have benefited from information they have shared with us.

We completed our contracted AMR projects on September 30, 2003 – on budget and 11 months ahead of our original five-year target of August 2004.

Some of the benefits gained from automation are a reduction in our meter reading staff from 42 to 11 and a reduction in cost per read from $.68 to currently $.44. As the commercial meter automation projects near completion we will reduce our staff further, to approximately 8 meter readers, and reduce our cost per read downward to approximately $.28 per read. This will give us the latitude to transition a few more meter readers to enhanced business processes. Two of these are the utilisation of our AMR technology to detect and prevent theft in the early stages, and using the technology to complete read-for-change service orders. These re-engineered processes will improve revenue protection and reduce field service costs associated with performing read-for-change orders manually with a number of field personnel.

SAFETY ISSUES IMPROVE

In addition to the reductions in staff and cost per read, we also eliminated the need to intrude on customers’ properties to obtain reads. Injuries and accidents, such as dog bites, falls, and company vehicle incidences have also been eliminated, as have the subsequent worker’s compensation claims. By eliminating errors related to manually inputting readings, we now read at a 100% accuracy rate. This has reduced the number of customer reading/billing complaints, which subsequently reduces the number of customer generated re-read requests. In addition, we have reduced our gas ‘can’t reads’ from a monthly average of 2500 to about 100, which will eventually be reduced to zero.

The gas and water AMR projects were both difficult and complex. However, they were also very rewarding to the AMR project team; we knew that we were the catalyst for making such a significant change in an operation that will result in long-term positive benefits for the City and adjacent counties for years to come.

This article was based on a paper delivered at the AMRA 2003 International Symposium. AMRA is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to educating numerous audiences about the benefits of AMR and related utility automation technologies.