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.