In the summer of 2000, Allegheny Power embarked on a mission that broke the mould of meter reading systems. We wanted a system that met the diversified needs of the company's meter reading workforce, and in the process helped to redefine the standards that had become entrenched in the industry.
Allegheny Power (AP) is a strong proponent of efficiency in field service and meter reading. We have maintained a workforce of meter readers who are responsible for residential meter reading, collection activity and most residential service work. They have served AP well.
However, while the meter reading portion of the work was well managed, the non-meter reading work was falling into what was termed a ‘black hole'. The scheduled meter reading portion of AP's service work had been managed electronically since 1984, but the collections portion was not fully electronic and the service order portion was still a totally manual process.
The project beginning
By 2000 AP had made several business acquisitions, which had added gas meter reading to the mix. These acquisitions introduced a host of process differences and several independent meter reading systems.
AP formed a meter reading system replacement (MRSR) team to find a new handheld system to replace the three vintage systems then in place. The team was made up of members representing all the major stakeholders in the meter reading and service order process, and their mission was to aggregate known requirements, determine new requirements, evaluate offerings in the marketplace and elect and implement a solution.
Early on the team determined that much work was needed to align processes between the different systems and the gas and electricity business units. Several key findings were identified that would be critical for the project.
First was an understanding of the work being performed in the field by meter readers. (See figure 1). This showed that as much as 30% of a meter reader's day was spent performing service orders and collections, and reinforced the need to implement a multi-functional handheld system. Second was that meter reading needed to remain the central focus of any new system, and that the more traditional needs of a meter reading system, like form factor and speed, were still important. Third, the team learned that the dynamic nature of field operations required a flexible and modern system. Out of these basic findings came both core and secondary requirements for AP's next-generation meter reading system.
Core requirements were defined as being critical to the system's basic functionality and use. They were:
- Ability to meet the handheld durability and ergonomic standards
- Electronic visual meter reading capture
- Ability to support electricity, gas and water meter reading
- Support of ‘on-cycle' collection activity
- Maintenance of at least the current level of meter reading management functionality
- Maintenance of at least the current HHU account update functionality.
Secondary requirements provided substantial added value or potential for future capability. They were:
- Ability to meet the defined hardware flexibility standards
- Ability to provide radio frequency (RF) interro- gation of select meters
- Flexible data management software architecture
- Ability to provide remote management and support capability
- Ability to implement on-line service order management system
- Improved statistical reporting capability
- Ability to adapt to AP's changing business needs.
Reality sets in
After compiling what were thought to be reasonable expectations, using other mobile technology as a benchmark, the MRSR began evaluating the offerings of seven software and 14 hardware options. We arrived at these conclusions:
- Proprietary technology was still viewed as viable, with only weak application program interface (API) support.
- Very few client/server solutions and no browser-based solutions existed.
- Most handheld technology was outdated, relying on DOS and serial capabilities.
- Data communication and data security was limited.
- Many system architectures were rigid and could not be easily scaled.
- System capabilities were often limited to ‘out- of-the-box' features, with little or no custom- isation options.
Only one software and one hardware solution met all the requirements. The challenge involved bringing a software vendor with a brand new offering together with a separate handheld hardware vendor offering a device that had never been used in meter reading.
The software component was DB Microware's FieldNet application, for the following reasons:
- Standard relational databases.
- Centralised data management/control.
- Scaleable system architecture (WIN or Unix).
- Small footprint client with minimal install requirements.
- Exploits handheld capability (audio, touch screen etc).
- Automated updates of the application at client and handheld.
- No specialised (field) PC hardware.
- Highly configurable and completely customisable.
- Service order/collections/meter reading capability.
- Probing and RF capability.
- Built-in rerouting capability.
- Multi-company, multi-CIS integration.
The FieldNet system had been piloted at a European utility, but was a totally new product for the US. It was also still in its infancy and lacked many of the refinements needed by AP. On the plus side, DB Microware had a lot of experience with meter reading systems and CIS systems in the US. They had a successful rerouting product called ARCS, which meant they knew what we needed to accomplish. Additionally, the architecture of the system was completely flexible and relied on standard off-the-shelf computer equipment (Figure 2).
The hardware component we chose was DAP Technologies' CE5320, for the following reasons:
- Windows CE (3.0) operating system.
- Brick style form factor.
- Touch screen capability.
- Standard peripheral connectivity – PCMCIA, LEMO, IRDA.
- Ethernet-based data communications.
- Truly mobile – wireless, LAN, dial-up.
- Data encryption and compaction.
- Highly rugged and designed for data entry.
- Fast CPU and flexible memory options configu rations.
- Speaker, keypad, backlighting etc.
- High capacity battery technology.
The CE5320 was less than one year old, and had not been used for meter reading. However, it was based on the PC9800 DOS handheld, which had a long track record in the meter reading industry.
After weighing the pros and cons of adopting this new solution, we decided that the benefits outweighed any risks.
Let the work begin
We decided to implement the system in phases, with the first phase to include meter reading and collections capability. Rollout of the first phase, which included 66 meter reading locations comprising both gas and electricity within a five-state territory, was completed in May, 2002.
Early results have been excellent. The field administrators and meter readers have accepted both the client system and the handhelds very well. The built-in rerouting capability has yet to be fully exploited, but the historic data being gathered should allow for a fast start on what is usually the most painful part of a rerouting process – the data collection.
Having a meter reading system that can easily be modified and upgraded has already spawned new initiatives within AP. RF meter reading for select accounts is being implemented. The new system has opened up the opportunity to implement meter probing for survey accounts, which we plan to implement by fourth quarter 2002. Other initiatives being evaluated include GPS meter tracking and vehicle-based satellite integration.
This project has shown AP that meter reading can still gain efficiency and that the inevitable introduction of AMR technology does not have to stifle innovation in handheld-based meter reading solutions. AP today has a flexible foundation upon which we can further streamline our meter reading, collections and field service processes.