Handheld survey: can an investment in handheld units be justified?

As a first step towards full AMR, many utilities seeing the need to move away from conventional meter reading but reluctant to make the large investment required by an AMR system are investing in handheld units. In this article several major manufacturers of handheld computers respond to some frequently-asked questions.

How do handheld systems improve utility productivity?

Overcoming meter access problems with appropriate meter reading technology

The main reasons for increased efficiency were noted as eliminating paperwork and the elimination of the need for a second person to key in the data at the billing site, thus increasing accuracy. On-the-spot validation of data was mentioned as a benefit by several respondents, and Albuquerque adds that flexible working, including home working, also increases efficiency.

In an electronically managed route, notes Stepanovich, all meters must be acknowledged (read or the reason for not being read noted) whereas a route using paper documents may allow the meter reader to inadvertently miss a read. The real time clock in handheld units can stamp each field activity with the time, to allow for subsequent route optimisation and meter reader productivity monitoring. Stepanovich also points out that a series of reads at a bank of meters can be performed more rapidly with an electronic device.

Henwood mentions the ability of handhelds to store information which will help the meter reader find the meter, protect him from dangers such as dogs, or alert him to special customer needs. In addition it is easier for the reader with a handheld unit to collect information needed by the utility.

Gallagher notes that the `read to bill' time is very long in a traditional system - often ten days or more, which means the utility is kept waiting for its money. Reducing this to a day or two improves cash flow dramatically. In addition costs can be cut by the reduction in the number of meter readers required and a reduction in re-reads.

Eskew points out that where meters are difficult to access, efficiency can be improved by equipping them with radio transmitters and fitting the handheld units with radio frequency attachments. "The system can also read load profile meters in the same route as manual or radio read type meters. Having a blended route will allow a utility to maintain one reader work force, thus increasing productivity and decreasing manpower requirements."

All panel members agree that installing a handheld system improves relations with customers. The accurate readings significantly reduce the number of account queries, and the customer history stored in the unit can help the meter reader to answer questions on the spot. In cases where data can be collected off-site, customers do not have to make special arrangements for the meter to be read. And the handheld system can alert the meter reader to specific customer requests, such as not walking on the grass.

What kind of reports are produced?

All our panellists agreed that the range of reports produced by handheld units also increases utility efficiency. Albuquerque mentions productivity and management reports, which allow better control of the field force and give management the ability to reward those who work well. Reports detailing specific situations in the field (e.g. engineering, commercial or safety matters) enable prompt action to be taken.

Stepanovich points out that handhelds incorporating the IrDA (infra red communication standard) capability can communicate in an un-cabled manner to belt mounted printers to generate field receipts, customer notices (e.g. bushes blocking meter) and other useful field documents.

Panellists all said that their products allow a suite of standard reports to be produced, and several mentioned that reports can be customised to suit a utility's particular needs. Standard reports include reader productivity, route summaries, zero consumption, no-reads, meter condition, vehicle and mileage details and trouble code reports.

What about compatibility with PCs?

"In a recent Husky survey of over 200 customers, conducted to assess their key requirements, compatibility with PCs and existing systems ranked at number two," says Gallagher. "MS-DOS has become the standard for meter reading systems, and utilities should be very wary of any suppliers who cannot offer true MS-DOS solutions, even if they appear cheaper at first glance. Incidentally, reliability came out firmly as the number one customer requirement."

Stepanovich believes that both MS-DOS and Windows are the most common operating system platforms. He notes that the IrDA standard allows for untethered peripheral interfacing to office PCs, and most commonly supports interfacing a belt-mounted printer to a handheld computer in the field, with no restrictive cabling.

In addition communication chips 16450 and 16550 (IrDA capability) and RS232 are the same as those found in laptop and desktop PCs, ensuring communications compatibility.

"The PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) standard allows for numerous functions like faxing, access to LANs, access to cellular and traditional phone communications to be used by office PC systems by the simple insertion of an ergonomic electronics card," says Stepanovich. "This same capability is utilised in today's modern handhelds. Type 3 cards can offer hard disk memory and GPS (global position system) functionality."

Henwood notes that a range of software applications using a PC with DOS, a PC with WIN95, Windows NT or a UNIX server is available. And Bouchez points out that a 100% PC compatible handheld computer allows utilities to develop software by themselves, or have it developed on their behalf, in any standard computer language.

Almost all products sold by our panellists are year 2000 compliant.

How can compatibility with an existing billing system be achieved?

Utilities have a wide range of different billing systems, and our panellists confirm that integrating with these systems has never been a problem. "Radix always provides a bespoke interface to match the utility's billing system," says Albuquerque, while Bouchez points out that, thanks to the PC platform used by the Microflex, it can be easily integrated in an existing billing system since it is possible to import and export existing ASCII files.

"Our system supports linking to an external filter program which can be used to map existing file outputs from billing systems into our expected record layout," notes Eskew. "We can also develop custom programs that convert these output files into a format acceptable to the utility billing system. This type of approach provides a more seamless link to the existing utility system."

Are optical reads essential?

Panellists were divided in their view on the necessity for optical reads. Albuquerque states: "Optical reading probes (either the FLAG or CALMU types) are needed to read the larger electricity meters, especially those which collect readings on a half-hourly basis and which are not connected up for automatic reading by radio or telephone networks. An optical probe speeds the reading process and avoids keying errors."

Stepanovich agrees. "Information obtained through optical reads - time of use data, load profile data, demand readings etc - are increasingly valuable to utilities and their customers.

"Time of use programs are increasing as power generators are required to deal with the expense of additional generation capacity, as well as stringent environmental requirements. Commercial and industrial customers have for some time opted for demand billing programs. Residential customers welcome the chance to lower their energy bills by using time of use billing."

In addition, Stepanovich points out that increased efficiency is achieved by including all of the noted optical reads in the meter reader's routes. Optical reads by the meter reader can minimise or eliminate the need for reads by meter technicians, who are typically at a higher pay scale.

Henwood, on the other hand, believes that optical reads are not essential; that the decision should be based on customer needs. The typical utility moves from EMR (electronic meter reading) when a handheld computer is used instead of paper, to RMR (remote meter reading or optical read) where the meter data is transmitted to the handheld through a peripheral interfacing directly to the meter, to OMR (off-site meter reading) when the meter data is automatically transmitted by radio to the handheld computer. In each of these systems, the route data is loaded into the handheld computer through a cradle and a communication server.

Finally there is AMR (automatic meter reading) a completely automatic system which involves the management of route data using direct radio frequency links to meter end points via concentrators and repeaters.

Gallagher points out that while optical reads can provide an advantage over `visual' read systems, as they potentially reduce error, they do mean that another device must be connected and carried. In addition, it is not possible to read some meters optically.

"Another method is to read the meter via a radio in the handheld computer, which also has the benefit of not having to gain access to the premises. Several manufacturers are now developing radios to the PC Card standard. If a PC Card is chosen, it is a good idea to go for the non-removable variety, as PC cards have very fragile connectors which will be damaged by the meter reader if removed. If the reader is able to remove the card, for example through a rubber lift-up hatch, you can bet your life he will!"

Bouchez points out that the great advantage of optical reads is the elimination of mistakes when can occur when the data is keyed in manually. And Eskew agrees with Henwood that the decision depends on the utility. "As more and more markets move toward open access, these customers are likely to be read with a more real time or on-demand reading system such as phone. The data from this type of customer is more critical and can justify a more automated reading system. Thus the need for optical reads will continue to decline in future years."

Why should utilities install a handheld system as opposed to a full-fledged remote meter reading system?

All our panellists mentioned the extra cost of an AMR system as being the primary reason for choosing handheld units to read meters. Albuquerque feels that automatic reading of meters is still a developing situation, with no emerging standard as yet, and that generally speaking it is not possible to justify AMR for most meter reading. "AMR comes into its own for the large consumers and for the difficult to read or difficult to access meters. Utilities are looking for additional value-added services to be added to AMR systems to aid justification, but this is still a difficult area at present. Handheld based reading will continue for many years yet as a cost effective and flexible solution for the bulk of reading work."

Stepanovich suggests that an incremental approach may be the best solution. "The utility meter reader can increase his productivity by including optical reads. A logical next step is to add radio frequency capability to the handheld for accessing hard-to-read meters remotely. At that point a utility can weigh the cost versus benefit of a full AMR system.

"It should also be recognised that a utility meter reader can collect additional information quickly and efficiently during his route, particularly if the handheld unit has a voice capability. Multiple survey questions which previously would have been too time consuming to respond to can now be expeditiously answered. And marketing information obtained by a monthly inspection, such as the condition of a driveway or roof, may have commercial value to the utility via sale of this information."

Henwood adds that if an incremental solution is planned, it is important to protect the previous investment. Choosing a solution which allows this provides the customer with choice and the ability to grow as and when justified.

The fact that a handheld system eliminates the social impact is mentioned by Bouchez. "Utilities hire a great number of meter readers, and while a handheld system will reduce the numbers required, it will not do away with meter readers altogether, as is the case with fully automatic systems."

Bouchez also points out that the traditional handheld computer is much more reliable and flexible for larger meter parks, especially with new technology like radio meter reading.

"Utilities are also looking at handhelds for other applications beyond meter reading, such as inventory control, work orders, collections, special reads and field service," says Eskew. "An investment today in handhelds will still be useful for other functions in the future, even if a utility totally automates its reading process."

We are grateful to our panellists for their input. They are Percy Albuquerque of Radix Micro Devices in the UK, Alexis Bouchez of DAP Technologies in France, Tim Eskew and Betsy Gravalec of Schlumberger Industries Inc in the USA, Keith Gallagher of Husky Computers in the UK, Jane Henwood of Itron Ltd in the UK, and Carl Stepanovich of DAP Technologies in the USA.