By Lynnette Cervone

Meter reading in Southwest Gas Corporation’s galaxy today is light years away from where it began in the company’s early history.Long gone are the handwritten cards from the 1960s where customer reads were easily ruined by rain, sweat, or sprinklers, being replaced over the years by a series of technological advancements, most recently automated meter reading (AMR).

For Southwest Gas, implementing these advanced technologies was a strategic business decision. Centred in three of the fastest-growing regions of the country, the company’s service territories encompass 94,390 km2 of vast desert landscapes, mountaintop lakes, and densely populated inner cities.

In order to continue to provide exemplary customer service in such rapid growth areas, the company seeks, researches and implements appropriate advanced technologies that help increase its business efficiencies.

One such technology is AMR, which enables the company to collect data from natural gas meters automatically via radio signal, thus eliminating the need for meter readers to access the customers’ properties every month.

Southwest Gas first began selectively deploying AMR technology in 1996 in high-growth areas or difficult to read locations, such as its Lake Tahoe service area where heavy snowfall typically buries outdoor natural gas meters under many metres of snow, rendering them inaccessible to the meter reading crews. The operational success of those early deployments convinced the company to move forward in implementing AMR companywide in order to maximise the benefits of the technology.

SW gas1

Southwest Gas installed AMR technology
in its Lake Tahoe service area
where heavy snowfall can bury
outdoor natural gas meters

However, before the project could move forward, Southwest Gas knew that it would have to complete three very important pre-project tasks if the companywide push toward AMR was to be successful – planning, communicating, and training.

In fact, these essential elements were the first topics mentioned in my discussions with other companies who had previously implemented AMR. As Southwest’s AMR project manager, it was imperative to have subject matter experts involved from all aspects of the company. One important area to plan extensively is the integration between the utility’s Customer Information System (CIS) and work order system. This requirement is essential to the project’s success.

Planning, planning, and more planning
Prior to the project’s implementation, the AMR team and senior management had to determine the pre-installation, installation and post-installation responsibilities. There are many questions that need to be asked and answered. What vendor will be utilised, who will perform the AMR installations, what is the project’s schedule, what meters can be retrofitted and what meters will need to be changed out? It is important to have the who, what, why, when, and where’s of AMR answered prior to rollout.

While there are many steps involved in the planning process, some additional areas of importance include responsibilities/deliverables; quality audits; the inventory control process; scheduling work orders and customer appointments; handling exceptions and investigations, as well as customer complaints; and determining processes associated with billing, uniforms, identification, training, testing, and security background.

Choosing the right scenario
Due to the aggressive schedule for Southwest’s Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Tucson projects, subcontractors were utilised. For the California and northern Nevada installations, another contractor that Southwest Gas works closely with was utilised.

There are three scenarios that utilities can apply to their AMR projects. The first is to have a contractor oversee subcontractors, the second is for the utility to oversee contractors, and the third is to use employees to install the AMR devices. Southwest Gas made the decision to use all three according to the needs and circumstances of the locations in question.

SW gas2

Southwest Gas used its own Southern Arizona employees in some areas rather than contractors for AMR installations because of their familiarity with the area and challenges such as the suspension bridges they had to use to get from one location to the next.

Proactive communication
Recognising the far reaching aspects of implementing a technology that would shift the majority of its meter readers into other departments, Southwest Gas developed a series of communications to employees and customers alike prior to the project’s start date, in order to offset any unfounded fears about the technology’s implementation or long-term effects.

Of course, one of the highest priorities of this project was to assure employees that no Southwesters would lose their jobs in the process. Meter readers who were no longer needed for routes would be assimilated into other areas of the workforce. The communication team also wrote responses to potential employee questions about the project and posted them on a newly created employee online forum dedicated to the AMR project, where employees could ask questions of and receive responses from various subject matter experts (SMEs). To that end, several SMEs were selected for any employee issues or concerns that should arise.

Training of office personnel
Because Southwest’s Customer Assistance employees would be the first to deal with any customer complaints or billing questions, it was imperative for the company to provide adequate training on any new procedures that might occur, gain their buy-in, and listen to and act on any feedback they may provide prior to and during the project’s implementation.

Lessons learned
As one of the first natural gas utilities in our region to implement AMR throughout its service territories, several important lessons were learned along the way. One top priority is to supply support to the utility departments touched by AMR as the project transitions from installation to maintenance. A second priority is to determine the requirements for a battery replacement process for the AMR device.

Other priorities include increasing mobile reading proficiency and the development and utilisation of reports that replace the previous work of the foot soldiers.

It is imperative to evaluate the business processes utilised when meters were read manually to ensure maximisation of AMR. For this to be a successful process, ample support is required.

As the company has learned over the years, AMR is a very efficient system that allows one person to read thousands of meters in a day as opposed to hundreds. For example, prior to the AMR installation project, meter readers could read between 250 and 600 meters per day.With AMR now in place, the devices should enable fewer meter readers to record 10 times as many reads per day.

This increased efficiency helps the company manage growth, improve accuracy, enhance customer service, and increase employee safety. In addition, Southwest will also save on costs associated with gasoline and vehicle maintenance, which is an added bonus for the environment.

SW gas3

Las Vegas meter reader Steve Milner’s typical day of gathering reads prior to AMR involved walking on walls in difficult-to-read locations.

Project status
As a result of Southwest’s proactive stance, the project was fully accepted by the employees and the public, and the AMR installation began in Phoenix in May 2006, with the other divisions posed to follow suit over a three-year period, and the company’s districts scheduled for installations between 2009 and 2010.

However, due to the success of the Phoenix project, Southwest’s board of directors gave its approval in the fall of 2006 to automate the entire Southwest galaxy, all within the three-year time frame. In January 2007, and with employee and customer support, Southwest Gas advanced the AMR installation project into Southern Nevada, Southern California, Northern Nevada, and the districts of Southern Arizona.

In April 2008, the final leg of the project moved into Tucson, Arizona, Southwest’s third metropolitan area and the one with the largest area to cover. While it was expected that the entire installation project would be completed by June 2009, the project is currently ahead of schedule and is set to wrap up by the end of 2008. Upon completion of the project, Southwest Gas will have deployed AMR technology to more than 1.8 million gas meters.

Thanks to the unselfish assistance provided by each division and district, along with the perseverance of the AMR installation teams, the project is now more than one year ahead of schedule. In addition, Southwest Gas has automated approximately 1.6 million of the company’s 1.8 million meters, and saved more than 86 percent in meter reading man-hours.

Word of this project’s success has now filtered beyond Southwest’s galaxy and into those of other utilities. Eager to learn from the team who had to create their AMR installation plan from scratch, these utilities have asked for Southwest’s guidance on developing their own AMR installation plans and processes. Like any true leader, Southwest has willingly agreed to share its knowledge and lessons learned with others.