Have you heard about this…?

If you’re paying close attention, you’ve realized it has only been one week since you received the last Utility Information Pipeline. I’m making an exception this week so that I can let you know about an upcoming seminar that I’m excited to be a part of. Other than listing my upcoming speaking engagements in the sidebar to the right, I haven’t previously publicized any of them individually.

The Topics in Financial Management of Water and Wastewater Utilities course on February 29, 2012 in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina is different. This course is presented by the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC School of Government and the Local Government Training Program in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. This is a one day course focusing on the financial management of water and wastewater utilities targeted at managers, finance directors and board members.

Several staff members from the Environmental Finance Center will present various sessions on designing and setting rates and the relationship between rates and customer usage. The EFC’s Rates Dashboard will also be highlighted in one of the sessions. I’m proud to have been invited to present my Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities presentation as part of the course.

If you are located in western North Carolina (or if you can get there) I strongly encourage you to consider attending the Topics in Financial Management of Water and Wastewater Utilities course. The experience will be worth much more than the $35 registration fee!

Reminder about the Utility Fee Survey

If you haven’t yet completed the Utility Fee Survey, I encourage you to please consider doing so. If you missed the e-mail, you can read about the Utility Fee Survey here and take the survey by clicking here.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders

Are you creating your meter reading file at the right time…?

Utility Information Pipeline #20 discussed meter reading best practices (you can read it here if you missed it) for utilities that don’t use AMR systems. Today, let’s address another best practice that affects utilities using handhelds or AMR systems.

Many utilities I’m familiar with make it a practice to transfer all of the meter reading routes for a billing cycle (or for the entire billing if they don’t do cycle billing) from their billing system to the handheld (or AMR) computer at one time. Editorial note – for the benefit of ease of reading, I’m going to refer to handhelds throughout this article, so if you use an automated meter reading system, please feel free to mentally substitute “AMR” every time you read “handheld”.

It is understandable why a utility would want to do this – because it’s expedient. In one fell swoop, all of the meter readings are transferred to the meter reading system, even if they will be read over the course of several days, or even a couple weeks.

But is this the best practice…?

In my experience, it is not. Let’s explore why it isn’t…

To insure the accuracy and validity of meter readings, you want to be sure the meters loaded in the handheld are the meters the reader will encounter when he or she gets to the address. What happens if you’ve completed a meter change-out since the handhelds were loaded?

If you’ve performed a meter change-out, the reading that is entered in the field for the new meter will be linked to the old meter in the handheld, in most cases creating a meter rollover with outrageously large usage. This means that the billing clerk must correct the reading so that an accurate bill will be generated.

This is especially critical if you read meters with an AMR system because the radio read technology relies on the correct electronic meter ID being used by the AMR system to query the meter. If the AMR system has the old meter’s electronic ID, no reading will be recorded and this will require sending a technician back to the address for a re-read.

When an account moves out and the final reading is taken after the handheld file was created, the reading in the handheld will be linked to the old account, not the current occupant. For some billing systems, this causes problems because there won’t be a current reading for the new account, again causing the billing clerk to do extra work to determine the correct readings.

What is the better way to create the handheld file?

The preferred practice is to create the handheld file first thing the day the meters will be read (or the last thing the day before if the meter readers get an early start). This insures that the meters that are loaded in the handheld to be read will in fact be the meter that the meter reader will encounter and that the meter will be linked to the correct account.

Do you need to change the way you’re loading handhelds?

If you are still transferring all routes in a billing cycle to the handheld system once at the beginning of the billing cycle, I encourage you to change this practice and create the handheld file each day.

If you have questions about loading handhelds or other meter reading best practices, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com. I would be glad to discuss how a business review could help be sure your utility is adhering to best practices.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders

Invitation to participate in the 2012 Utility Fee Survey

I would like to invite you to participate in a Utility Fee Survey that I’m conducting. I’m researching what fees different utilities charge and how much they charge for each fee.

The results of the survey will be published in one of my upcoming e-mail newsletters and then posted here on my blog. To be sure you receive the results of the survey, if you haven’t already signed up for my free e-mail newsletter, please click here to subscribe.

Complete the 2012 Utility Fee Survey

If you are willing to participate in the survey, please click here to complete the survey. It should take less than five minutes to complete.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com or call me at 919-232-2320.

I would like to get as much participation as possible in the survey, so please feel free to pass this on to your colleagues at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for your participation in the Utility Fee Survey.

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results

The results of the 2012 Utility Fee Survey can be viewed here:

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© 2012 Gary Sanders

Should your next billing system be a hosted system?

When I first started in this business over 30 years ago, I worked for a computer service bureau. In the early days of computers, service bureaus provided computer time to other businesses on a rental basis. End users logged into mainframe computers with large monochrome terminals over leased data lines.

I’ve seen utility billing systems evolve from service bureaus to a series of in-house systems. Starting with proprietary minicomputers, then UNIX networks to Windows client-server networks and now to in-house web based systems. I believe we are about to come full circle as hosted systems in the cloud become today’s equivalent of the 1970’s service bureau.

The term “cloud computing” is all the buzz in the media these days. So what is it all about and what does it mean for you?

What is cloud computing?

According to Wikipedia, “cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices as a metered service over a network (typically the Internet)”.

Utility Information Pipeline #5 (you can read it here if you missed it) talked about cloud based enterprise e-mails systems as an alternative to in-house e-mail systems. What about cloud based utility billing systems?

From the perspective of utility billing systems, cloud computing means running the billing software in what is often called a hosted environment. In a hosted environment, both the software (in this case the billing application) and the information (the billing data) are stored on remote servers that are accessible via the internet.

In coming full circle from the original service bureau environment to the hosted systems of today, web servers replace mainframes, the internet replaces leased data lines and personal computers (or even tablets) replace bulky green-screen terminals.

What are the advantages of a hosted environment?

Hosted systems eliminate the need for in-house application servers. This saves the utility the initial purchase price of the server hardware and operating system software. It also saves the labor costs associated with ongoing server maintenance and upgrades.

Software upgrades are performed by the software vendor during downtime and don’t require any technical expertise by the utility to keep the system up-to-date.

Data backups are performed for you in a hosted environment and don’t require your staff to remember to swap backup media each day or take the latest backup offsite.

Most cloud computing environments rely on redundancy, eliminating downtime due to hardware failures or power outages.

Finally, a hosted environment is accessible anywhere internet access is available. Unlike in-house systems, which require a virtual private network (VPN) to access from outside your office, a hosted system is as close as the nearest internet connection. This can be very handy in the case of late night or weekend emergency calls if you don’t want to drive to the office to access your billing system.

Are there disadvantages to a hosted environment?

The only real disadvantage to a hosted environment is that it requires internet access. If internet access is unavailable, then the billing system is unavailable. This potential obstacle can be overcome by having a backup internet service provider or using cellular broadband access when your primary internet access is down.

Should you consider a hosted system for your next billing system?

If you have questions about computing environments or if you think a hosted environment might be right for your utility, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn more about how a business review might assist you in making that decision.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders