In 1997, Bryan Texas Utilities (BTU)
experienced an increase in the number of
customers who were unable to pay their
electric utility bills. BTU set out to look for an
option that would serve this portion of the
customer base while allowing the organisation
to lower the existing number of extensions
and payment plans.

Company officials learned of the PowerStat product
from CIC Systems, Inc. and decided that this metering
and payment option offered an alternative for BTU
customers, allowing them to:

  • Prepay for electricity at the same rate other residential
    customers paid
  • Monitor their usage so as not to overspend
  • Be exempted from paying the standard electric utility
    deposit.

BTU decided to implement a pilot project that would last
for a period of a few months.

Planing a prepayment system

Internal planning was the first step. Since planning and
implementing the prepayment system involved multiple
departments within the utility, a team was formed with
representatives from
customer service,
metering, fiscal, dispatch,
and distribution.

This
team met many times
over a two-to-threemonth
period to address
all the foreseeable
issues, including training,
scheduling, lobby
requests, customer
education, marketing,
impact on the CIS, and
accounts receivable
considerations.
Another concern was
to have a distinguishable
name for the product.
PowerStat was the
vendor's name for their
product, so it was decided
to call BTU's system
"˜Power Track'.

Implementing BTU's prepayment system

The majority of the targeted installation locations were leased
properties. Before the Power Track equipment could be
installed, BTU had to get consent from the property owners.
At that time, the technology required a hard-wired connection
between the display inside the home and the meter outside.
Property owners were very receptive to the idea and were
willing to participate in the pilot programme, since some of
their tenants were actually already requesting Power Track.
Another reason for their prompt agreement was that an
exemption from paying the electric utility deposit was offered
with the prepay option.

Expanding the prepayment system

BTU continued to expand the Power Track programme, as
it was proving to be a viable option for those customers who
were having trouble paying their electric bills on time. The
prepay system afforded customers the luxury of purchasing
electricity whenever they had the money. While this is still
the overwhelming reason customers like Power Track,
many customers request Power Track so they can use it
as an instrument to closely track their electric usage. Some
customers have commented that they utilise Power Track
as a means to teach their children about electrical usage,
energy conservation, and how running certain equipment
impacts the bill.

Once Power Track was installed in more locations, the
word began to spread like wildfire. The pilot programme
moved directly into a utility-wide programme that has
continued to grow. There has been no active marketing of
the programme, yet approximately 10% of BTU customers
currently utilise the Power Track system. Additionally, the
company has experienced savings since it no longer has to
mail paper bills to customers utilising the prepay system.

Upgrading the prepayment system

In 2004, CIC Global, LLC sold its intellectual property to
Distribution Control Systems, Inc. (DCSI). There were also
many changes to the PowerStat product that occurred
throughout the years as BTU migrated from version 2 to
version 4 (V4) of the system. Versions 2 and 3 were hardwired
systems that took over 1½ hours to install.

Due to the
wired connection between the outside meter and the inside
display, these were very difficult to install in multiple story
apartment buildings and in mobile homes, with long runs of
underground cable to install between the meter pole and the
home.
The V4, on the other hand, is a wireless system that
operates by utilising power line carrier (PLC) technology. It
consists of a solid state meter, a disconnect sleeve, and a
display that is placed in the home.

Unlike earlier versions
of Power Track, the V4's meter houses the "˜brains' of the
installation. Using PLC technology, it communicates with the
in-home display via any 120 VAC wall outlet within the home.
The sleeve contains a 200 A disconnecting switch that is
also controlled by the meter. This allows for the service to be
interrupted once the customer runs out of money and allows
for service restoration after the customer purchases more
Power Track credit.

Meters and displays are mated up and configured
together at the shop before they are installed out in the field.
This ensures that equipment set up at one location cannot
be removed and installed at another location without first
being reconfigured by a BTU employee. The installation of
V4 equipment at a customer location is simple and takes less
than fifteen minutes. The meter and sleeve are installed in the meter socket, and the display is mounted anywhere in the
house where there is access to a 120 VAC outlet. The system
utilises the house wiring for the communication medium.

Using BTU's prepayment system

Each customer is given a Power Track card, similar to a credit
card, with a magnetic stripe that is used to apply monetary
credit to his or her account. When this card is swiped through
the display, the credited amount is sent to the meter via PLC
and a "˜card accepted' message appears on the display. The
dollar amount of credit remaining "” the amount available
prior to swiping the card plus the amount that was just added
"” is displayed.

This represents the total prepaid dollar
amount that has been applied towards the "purchase" of
electric energy.
When this amount gets down to $0.00, the meter will
automatically send an "˜open' command to the disconnect
sleeve. The 200 A switch in the sleeve then opens, causing
power to the home to be disconnected. When more credit is
purchased and placed on the card, the customer must first put
the system in back-up battery mode before swiping the card.

This is necessary because there is no electricity available to
power up the display. When the display's battery button is
pressed and the new money card is swiped, a radio frequency
signal is sent from the display to the meter. The meter then
sends a "closed" command to the disconnect sleeve, allowing
power to begin flowing again.

The in-home display provides customers with valuable
information that is also helpful for those trying to conserve
energy. Customers can scroll through six basic screens
that show vital information about the status of the system.
Based on this information, they can then adjust their usage
accordingly.

  • Screen number 1 shows the amount remaining, i.e. the total
    dollar amount of credit available and the amount of money
    left to be used before the service is disconnected.
  • Screen number 2 displays the usage per hour – an
    indication of how much money is being used at that
    moment.
  • Screen number 3 displays the amount used during the
    prior 24 hours. Once the unit senses that the dollar amount
    remaining is less than four times the amount that was used
    yesterday as displayed on screen number 3, the display
    will go into an alert mode. It will
    periodically sound an audible
    beep and display a "˜low amount
    remaining' message to alert the
    customer to purchase more
    electricity.
  • Screen number 4 displays the
    amount used the previous
    month.
  • Screen number 5 displays the
    dollar amount of the last card
    that was actually swiped through
    and accepted by the display.
  • Screen number 6 displays the
    current rate at which the
    usage is being charged.

When there is trouble with the
unit, the customer calls the regular
service number. A Power Track
specialist is then dispatched to that
location to repair the problem. If
the problem occurs after hours, the on-call operations
personnel will bypass
the system, allowing
the customer to
receive power until
the unit can be fixed.
While in this bypassed
state, the customer
will continue to accrue
usage.

If the unit has
not been repaired by
the time the dollar
amount reaches
zero, the meter will
continue to tick off
money, going into the
negative range. The
display unit will also
show this negative
dollar amount. After
the unit is repaired,
the customer will
be required to put
enough money on
his or her card to
exceed the negative amount, thus taking care of the accrued
usage deficit, while at the same time pre-purchasing more
electricity for future usage.

The prepay system has also been placed wholesale
into two apartment complexes in Bryan, which mainly house
college students. This is positive for the students because
each tenant in an apartment can separately purchase electric
energy. This allows room-mates to share the responsibility
of making electric utility purchases. As mentioned earlier, an
added benefit is that the students at these complexes do not
have to pay the standard electric utility deposit.
BTU has had great success with its prepaid metering
programme.

Power Track has provided the company with an
invaluable option for those customers who have experienced
difficulty paying their electric bills. It has been a good option
for customers who are on strict budgets and want to monitor
their electric usage. It has even proven to be a great tool for
those who are simply looking for ways to conserve energy.