Socalgas upgrades handhelds for meter reading

The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, has been using handheld computers for monthly reads of its customers' gas meters for some time – so long, in fact, that the handhelds had become obsolete by 1994. An increase in failure rates and service repair costs, plus the fact that SoCalGas had to pay for the operational and labour costs associated with the supervision and upkeep of the existing system, meant that a refurbishment of the handheld computers, peripherals and accessories was necessary.

However, further investigation by Mark Serrano, measurement manager at SoCalGas, showed that it would be more profitable to invest in new equipment for meter reading activities than to continue spending money maintaining the existing system. The company thus embarked on a search for a system capable of combining reliability, flexibility and convenience with a high level of ruggedness and security when capturing, transferring and processing data. The final choice was Utility Translation Systems (now Itron) for the new system software, and DAP Technologies for the handheld computers.

TWO DIFFERENT SUPPLIERS

Utilities often use the same supplier for both hardware and software when buying a new system, but SoCalGas found that a single supplier could not provide the most cost-effective solution. The choice of two different suppliers helps to ensure system interoperability, allowing SoCalGas the option of integrating hardware from a different supplier in the future.

The changeover to the new system began in February 1995, and the work for SoCalGas's 43 bases was completed nine months later.

Before the purchase of the new system, SoCalGas owned 530 units, and some 15% were repaired each month. SoCalGas was in the process of converting from a full-time to a part-time workforce, and knew that additional units would be needed. Once the new equipment had been installed (800 units at the time of the initial installation, a number which continues to increase) the percentage of units repaired dropped to just under 4% – a considerable improvement, but not as good as had been anticipated. The new units were returned for reasons such as lock-ups and inability to power up or charge. Other technical problems, such as difficulty with reading the screens because they would darken in prolonged direct sunlight, and signs of early keyboard wear, were quickly resolved.

A special programme that monitors the management and maintenance of each unit allows SoCalGas to trace and evaluate the repairs to each handheld computer. SoCalGas found that during the first year of operation (February 1996 to January 1997) the average number of times a unit needed to be repaired was once every 25 months. This improved to an average of once every 49 months in the period February 1997 to January 2001.

At the same time improved labour schedules and itineraries increased the productivity of the meter readers, with a consequent improvement in the quality of customer service. SoCalGas believes the new system also allows it to manage customer information more efficiently than before.

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