The case for proactive leak detection

I know of utilities with AMI (Automated Metering Infrastructure) systems who aren’t doing proactive leak detection. My question is why wouldn’t they?

Certainly, an AMI system is the most convenient way to read meters. Unlike using handhelds, or even an AMR system, AMI systems require no labor to collect meter readings for billing. But to view an AMI system as simply a labor-saving meter reading tool is a huge mistake.

Review of AMI technology

AMI systems are preprogrammed to read each meter at set intervals – sometimes only once each day, other times as frequently as several times per hour. These frequent meter readings calculate incremental usages, which can be compared to historic usage patterns for the account. When a large increase in usage is detected and does not return to normal, this generally indicates a leak or other situation requiring the customer’s attention, such as a hung toilet.

What is proactive leak detection?

Using proactive leak detection, a utility with an AMI system monitors the system outputs each day and immediately contacts the customer to alert them to the prolonged excessive usage. This places the responsibility for finding and fixing a leak on the customer. Logically, it only follows, if the utility has immediately notified the customer of a potential leak, the utility now shoulders no responsibility for providing leak adjustments of any sort.

Advantages of proactive leak detection

When potential leaks are being monitored on a daily basis, and the customer rectifies the problem promptly, water is conserved. This is especially important in times of drought or if your utility purchases water for resale from another utility.

Another advantage of proactive leak detection is not having to deal with leak adjustments. For many utilities, leak adjustments can be a time consuming process, involving contacting the customer to provide documentation the leak has been fixed, researching normal usage patterns, performing the calculation to determine the amount of the leak adjustment, and, finally, applying the leak adjustment to the customer’s account. Imagine never having to do another leak adjustment!

Is your leak adjustment policy up-to-date?

Have you implemented an AMI system but still offer leak adjustments? Or has it been a while since you’ve reviewed your leak adjustment policy? If your utility falls into either of these cases, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

What is an acceptable percentage of estimated readings?

I’m originally from upstate New York, where water meters are located in basements or cellars to keep them from freezing. The small town where I grew up operated a water system and, with limited staff, frequently estimated meter readings. My mother was aware of this and, after several billing periods without her meter being read, was convinced they were overestimating her usage. So she called and made arrangements for the meter reader to come and read her meter. Much to her chagrin, they had been underestimating her reading all those months and her next water bill was much higher than the bills she thought were already excessive!

 
Estimated meter reading
 

An inquiry from a colleague

Last year, I had a professional colleague contact me with the following questions:

“Do you by chance know if there is an industry standard for estimated meter reads?  I know you would want this number to be as low as possible but is there an industry target that would indicate a utility’s meter reading capabilities?”

My response was:

“I’m not aware of any industry standard for estimated meter readings. Off the top of my head, I would think anything greater than about 2% would be excessive unless there were extenuating circumstances (such as snow in an area like ours in North Carolina where utilities aren’t prepared to read in that kind of weather).”

This is where you get to help…

Previous Utility Information Pipelines have addressed meter reading best practices and alternating actual readings and estimates as a way of reducing costs, but none have addressed routine estimates.

In order to better answer my colleague’s question, I’ve put together a short survey asking how your utility handles estimated meter readings. Please take a few minutes to complete the survey by clicking here.

The results of the survey will be published in the next Utility Information Pipeline.

Do you need to review your meter reading practices?

If your meter reading could be improved upon, please give me a call at 919-232-2320, or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help.

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© 2017 Gary Sanders

Do you document customer interactions?

The last issue discussed reading inactive meters for vacant accounts and included a poll asking if your utility reads inactive meters.

Poll results

Ten utilities responded to the poll, and here are the results (clicking on the the graphic will open a larger image in a new window):

Do you read inactive meters

If you missed the poll, you can click here to take it.

While only ten utilities responded to the poll, I’m pleased to see that 70% of the respondents do read inactive meters. I’m especially glad to see the one utility that still reads on paper is reading inactive meters!

What really surprised me is the utility that reads using an automated meter reading system and doesn’t read inactive meters. Frankly, this baffles me. Unlike reading on paper or with handhelds, where the meter reader must take additional time to read inactive meters, reading with an AMR or AMI system takes no extra time. So why not read inactive meters?

Documenting customer interactions

Does your utility keep a record of all customer interactions? For example, if a customer calls to complain about a high bill or request additional time to pay their bill, do you log a comment for that?

Documenting each conversation with a customer can prove invaluable if the customer complains to management or your board.

Documenting each conversation with a customer can prove invaluable if the customer complains to management or your board. Customers tend to remember their version of a phone call and having an accurate record of what transpired during the call can easily resolve a “he said, she said” situation when the customer suffers from selective memory.

I encourage all of our customers to enter a comment for any conversation with a customer beyond the routine “how much is my bill and when is it due?” questions. Any good billing system allows you to enter comments for each customer. If yours doesn’t, it’s time to look for new software! If your billing software won’t allow you to enter comments for each customer, give me a call and let’s discuss how a business review could help determine what other shortcomings your software has.

Share your stories

Have you experienced a situation where having documented a customer conversation proved invaluable later? If so, please click here to take a moment share your story in the comments section of this post on my blog.

Are you using your software to your best advantage?

If you aren’t sure your utility is using your software to its best advantage, or if you realize it’s time for new software, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help you understand what new software could do for you.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

Poll results and vacant accounts

The last issue revisited how the number of days between meter readings and sending bills can adversely contribute to increased days of exposure.

Poll results

That issue included a poll asking how many days pass between reading meters and mailing bills. Twenty utilities responded, and here are the results of that poll:

If you missed the poll, you can click here to take it.

If your utility is one that mails bills within two or three days of reading meters, congratulations, you’ve figured out how to do it efficiently!

If your utility falls in the four to seven day range, this is what I would call normal – there’s room for improvement, but it’s not excessive.

However, if your utility takes eight or more days, as the majority of the responses, I consider this to be excessive. I would encourage you to evaluate why it takes so long and see if you can find room for improvement. If you can’t figure out how to reduce the time between reading and billing on your own, please give me a call to see how a business review could assist you.

Reading inactive meters

While we’re on the topic of meter readings, let’s revisit reading inactive meters for vacant accounts, a topic I touched on briefly while discussing meter reading best practices.

From the best I can tell, in most cases the practice of not reading inactive meters is a symptom of the TTWWADI syndrome

From the best I can tell, in most cases the practice of not reading inactive meters is a symptom of the TTWWADI syndrome, dating back to when most utilities read meters on paper and entered them manually. Not reading inactive meters was thought to be a time saving tactic for both the meter readers and office staff.

With the advent of handhelds and automated meter reading systems, there is no reason not to read inactive meters. Reading inactive meters is your best tool for detecting customers who may have moved into a vacant home without properly initiating service. For water utilities, it’s also the best way to determine if there is a leak at a vacant property.

Do you read inactive meters?

Does your utility read inactive meters? Please take a moment to to take this quick poll and I’ll publish the results in the next issue.

Do you operate as efficiently as possible?

If you aren’t sure your utility is operating as efficiently as it could be, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help your utility.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

5 things to consider as you move forward

In a previous article, I wrote about factors to consider when deciding whether to use an outside contractor or your own staff to change meters in preparation for the transition to an automated meter reading system.

Should you decide to hire a contractor, here are some things to keep in mind before turning them loose to start changing meters.

Software interface

Does your billing software have the capability of creating an electronic file of meters to be changed and, in turn, importing those changed meters? Hopefully it can, because updating a mass meter change-out rather than manually entering each change-out is a huge time savings for your billing staff.

Moving meters to a new route

Will your AMR or AMI system use different software for reading the meters than you currently use? If so, these meters will most likely need to be exported in separate interface files. For many billing systems, this means moving the changed-out meters to a different route.

Coordination of the process

An earlier Utility Information Pipeline examined the timing of creating your meter reading file at the right time. The point of that issue was that you shouldn’t create all of your meter reading files at the same time. This is especially true if you are in the midst of a mass meter change-out program.

It is imperative the meter that was loaded in the handheld is the same one your meter reader will encounter when reading that route. Unless you have extremely good communication and coordination with your contractor, creating the reading file too early in the month greatly increases the chance your contractor will have changed the meter by the time that route is read. Creating the reading file the afternoon before or the morning of reading a route virtually eliminates the possibility of this happening.

Photograph of the old meter

Many contractors use tablets or smartphones in the field to log the meter change-out. While negotiating a contract with them, inquire if they can take a digital photograph of the old meter’s register before removing it. This can be most helpful in resolving any disputes with customers over what the correct final reading for the old meter was.

Capture latitude/longitude

Again, many contractors have the ability to capture the GPS coordinates – latitude and longitude – for each meter. If you don’t already have this information stored in your billing system, a mass meter change-out is a great way to capture it.

Questions about a mass meter change-out?

If you have questions about doing a mass meter change-out or other meter reading best practices, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help be sure your utility is adhering to best practices.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

Should you hire a contractor to upgrade your meters?

So, your utility has decided to upgrade to an automated meter reading system? You know all your meters must be replaced, but should your staff replace them or should you hire an outside contractor?

Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of both options…

Replacing meters using existing staff

The primary advantage of having your own field staff replace meters is the cost savings. If your existing field staff is able to replace the meters without working overtime, you won’t incur any additional labor cost.

However, if you are using existing staff, chances are they have other job responsibilities besides changing out meters. This means they won’t be able to dedicate all their time to replacing meters, making the project take longer to complete. If you have a major leak and need extra help to repair it, the technicians tasked with changing meters are often the first to be called.

Using an outside contractor

An outside contractor is dedicated to the task of replacing meters, regardless of what else is happening in your utility. If you have a water main break, contractors don’t get pulled off the job to repair the leak and meters continue to be changed out.

You won’t realize the full return on investment for your new automated meter reading system until all of your meters have been replaced with radio read meters.

You won’t realize the full return on investment for your new automated meter reading system until all of your meters have been replaced with radio read meters. If there is a deadline for the project to be fully implemented, it might be wise to consider hiring a contractor.

Another advantage to hiring a contractor is many contractors are able to provide a data file with meter change-out information. If your billing system can import and update a meter change-out file, this can greatly reduce the data entry time required for your billing staff to enter all the meter change-outs.

The obvious disadvantage to hiring an outside contractor is cost. The contractor is going to have to be paid and this cost needs to be factored into the overall cost of the project.

Need help deciding?

Trying to decide if an automated meter reading system would be cost effective? Or, if you’ve determined it would be, are you still weighing whether to change the meters in house or hire a contractor? Either way, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help your utility.

Final week for the 2015 Utility Fee Survey

I will be closing the 2015 Utility Fee Survey at 5:00pm on Tuesday, June 30, so if you haven’t yet participated, please take a few minutes to do so. 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’m looking for 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.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders