The US utility Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) serves a population of over 1 million, and provides water to 235,000 residential, commercial and industrial premises. 80% of its customer base is residential, and the utility recently decided to move these 231,000 customers to an AMR system.

THERE WERE VARIOUS REASONS FOR THIS DECISION:

  • Turnover, injuries and safety issues relating to meter readers.
  • The fact that some 60% of GCWW’s meters are set inside customer premises. GCWW tells customers what day the meter will be read, but access problems continue to result in estimated bills.
  • GCWW manages about 30,000 customer keys, and liability issues are a concern.
  • The need to replace some meters to improve accuracy and maintain fairness among customers.
  • The need for improved customer service as competition in the industry increases.

CHOICE OF TECHNOLOGY

GCWW, with the help of AMR consultants Cognyst Consulting, evaluated all the available technologies. “Cost was a major influencer in our decision to choose a drive-by system,” says Dave Bennett, supervisor field services. “The topography of the area we serve was also a factor. We are surrounded by hills, with a large valley running through the area, so a fixed system wasn’t practical. However, we plan to introduce AMR to our larger C&I customers in due course, and a fixed system may well be more appropriate for them. They may even be prepared to help meet the costs of such a system, to gain the benefit of the added value services that we can offer.”

The prime contractor selected was VSI Meter Services using Neptune Technology Group’s meters and AMR equipment. GCWW will retain all meters that are less than five years old, and replace the remainder. The installation will take 3-4 years to complete.

Almost 60% of the meters are located inside customer homes. “We wanted the meter interface unit (MIU) to be located outside, but couldn’t always achieve this,” says Bennett. “However, it doesn’t matter with Neptune technology – we still get the signal.”

PRIOR PLANNING

The project has been managed using several teams – a feasibility study team, a procurement team, an implementation team and the operating team. Close co-ordination of all their activities has ensured continuity and smooth progress towards meeting objectives. GCWW, Neptune and VSI developed a Detailed Statement of Work (DSOW), which sets out everything to be managed during the project. It also includes such aspects as staffing, performance measures, reports, meeting schedules and procedures for making changes. The DSOW minimises ‘scope creep’ because of oversights, and is being used as a training tool for both GCWW staff and the installation team.

Communication, both internal and external, received much attention. “We went into the project focusing on customer service,” says Connie Roesch, superintendent of the commercial services division. “There are several political districts in the area we cover, and we had to be sure we were keeping everyone informed about what we were doing. Various communication teams were responsible for handling communication with GCWW employees and the wider community.”

GCWW decided to brand its AMR project to build awareness and enthusiasm. It was called H20 Radio, and the logo is used on all published materials, GCWW vehicles and VSI vehicles and uniforms.

There is a detailed procedure for communication with customers. “Customers who do not respond to our initial approach can receive up to eight different messages,” says Alison Posinski, assistant superintendent commercial services division. The process starts off with a welcome letter signed by the GCWW director, asking for customer co-operation. VSI then sends out an appointment card, asking customers to select a convenient time for the installation team to call. If there is no response to these initiatives, a form is left on the customer’s door and a further letter is sent from VSI. The utility’s call centre also makes use of an auto-dialler system which calls customers with a pre-recorded message. If there is still no contact from the customer, a letter is sent from GCWW explaining that there will be no further manual reading of their meters, and that no special services will be available until the meter has been changed. Finally, a notice is posted at the property, also stating the discontinuance of non-essential services until the H2O Radio unit has been installed.

VSI staff work until 8 p.m. during the week, as well as on Saturdays, to accommodate those customers who cannot offer access to their premises during normal working hours.

“This communication programme has resulted in 75-80% co-operation from our customers before the endpoint is reached,” says Roesch. “And customer complaints form less than 1% of the total.”

Effective communication was also evident in the discussions regarding job losses on the part of GCWW’s meter readers. “We worked with employees and labour unions to ensure that no one will lose his or her job because of the new technology,” says Roesch. “We have a sub-committee that deals specifically with retraining and redeployment of meter readers as their jobs become redundant. This is happening gradually, of course, and some readers will be required for the full four years of the project.”