Y2K and your utility's handheld meter reading equipment
By now everyone has heard the horror stories predicted for the year 2000. A shortcut taken 20 years ago to save valuable space on computers by dropping the first two digits of the year may cause problems when the two digits are 00; the computer thinks it is the year 1900. This problem is commonly abbreviated as Y2K. You may need to take steps now to ensure your equipment will function in the year 2000.
Handheld meter reading equipment is used today by about 70% of all North American utilities. World-wide the number is perhaps closer to 40%. These simple, low cost devices have reduced meter departments’ headcount and improved metering accuracy.
The majority of handheld systems use a PC as an
intermediate step. Route data is uploaded to the handheld unit from the mainframe through the PC. The meter reader takes a loaded handheld unit to the field, enters all the meter readings and returns to download through the PC and back to the mainframe. All the companies are using the ASCII flat file format – at least for the products they are distributing in North America.
We converted to a handheld meter reading system nine years ago. It is a DOS based system with a series of menu choices and an 8086 microprocessor. It is an older cumbersome system that is not user friendly. One wrong keystroke and data can be jumbled or lost. The handheld unit weights about 3 pounds (1.3kg). Newer units weigh much less. Still, we would not be looking at replacing our system if it were Y2K compatible.
In addition to being lighter, units manufactured today use 286 and 386 microprocessors and offer many more features. Major manufacturers such as Schlumberger, Itron, Radix and Telxon started addressing Y2K problems in 1996. Systems purchased before then have a high risk of being susceptible to the Y2K bug - beware!
Fifty-two different utility companies in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand responded to a survey sent out through the International Utility Revenue Protection Association (IURPA).The survey revealed that all the users of handheld meter reading equipment purchased in the last three years were satisfied with their equipment, regardless of manufacturer. Those with systems over four years old expressed dissatisfaction and are considering replacement systems.
Itron seems to have the largest portion of the North American electricity utility market. The company is now offering the Husky handheld unit as well as its own model. Schlumberger has a larger portion of the water and gas reading markets. Telxon seems to be favoured in Australia and New Zealand, while Husky is popular in Europe.
Several smaller organisations involved with handheld units are offering solutions based on third party handware, such as Psion, 3Com and Datamatic.
Some issues to consider if you intend to up-grade your system:
- Remote meter reading: If you are considering remote meter reading, the possibilities include radio frequency, inductive probing, optical probing and frequency modulation.
- Service support: Consider how long the company has been in business. Most of the major companies have been around for at least 20 years, and can provide reliable service support.
- Digital voice capability: Some handhelds are now available with voice capability. The advantage is that the meter reader can record a message at the site and play it back later.
- Low light features: Some units are backlit for low-light conditions. (Our present unit came with a built-in flashlight that stopped working after two or three years).
- Removable PC card: Some PC cards are removable. This may or may not be a desirable feature. The advantage is the card can be removed for repair or upgrade; the disadvantage is that it could be mishandled or damaged.
- Weight: Some units are lighter than others. Most meter readers prefer the lighter units, but a heavier unit may have a longer-lasting battery pack.
- Software: Windows 95/98 based software may be preferable to DOS. Some companies are still offering their products in DOS, but in general DOS does not interface as well with other Windows software.
- Data Processing: One can choose between a company that manufactures the basic equipment and provides the data processing support, or a company that provides the data processing support for a unit purchased from another manufacturer. While the freelance support companies tend to have a more innovative product, they may not have the long-term stability of a manufacturer that provides data support services.
If your handheld meter reading equipment was purchased before 1996, contact the manufacturer for recommendations and options concerning Y2K. If it was bought after 1996, read your operating guidelines - if Y2K compatibility is not mentioned, contact the manufacturer to ensure your unit is programmed for the new millennium. Your PC must also be Y2K compliant – if either the handheld unit or the PC is not programmed for Y2K, you will be unable to use your electronics in the year 2000.