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

How frequently do you bill?

From time to time I hear from utilities considering changing from bi-monthly to monthly billing.

Historically, the primary reason utilities have billed less frequently than monthly, for example bi-monthly or quarterly, is the amount of time required to complete the meter reading process. As utilities transition from manual meter reading to automated meter reading, the meter reading process is no longer an inhibiting factor to monthly billing.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of making the switch. First, the pros…

Improved cash flow

One of the primary reasons for moving from bi-monthly to monthly billing is to even out cash flow. Rather than receiving large amounts of cash one month and little the next, monthly billing allows the utility’s cash flow to level out month to month.

More convenient for customers to remember when bills are due

Monthly billing is also more convenient for customers. Rather than having to remember if the utility bill is due this month, or if it was last month, your customers will know they have a utility bill due each month.

Easier for customers to budget

Just as monthly billing levels out the utility’s cash flow, it also facilitates easier budgeting for your customers. Going forward, they will know they have a smaller bill due every month.

Facilitates earlier detection of customer leaks

Monthly billing will also lead to fewer losses due to leaks. By reading meters more frequently, excessively large meter readings due to leaks are detected sooner. By doing this, you will be doing customers who have leaks in the future a service by reducing the amount of their water bill.

Less revenue loss from leak adjustments

If your utility provides adjustments for water leaks, monthly billing will also reduce future losses from leak adjustments because the amount of water lost to leaks will be reduced.

Now, for some of the cons…

Doubles workload of office staff

The most obvious disadvantage of monthly billing is the doubling of workload of your staff. Meter readings, billings and delinquent processes all will occur twice as often and the volume of payments and adjustments will double.

Additional expense to the utility

In addition to staff workload doubling with monthly billing, all associated expenses will also double. This includes fuel and vehicle expenses for meter readings, business forms, mailing and postage costs, and paper and consumables for printers.

Habitually late customers will incur twice as many fees

While monthly billing will generally be perceived by your customers as being an improvement over bi-monthly billing, one segment of your customer base will be adversely affected. Habitually delinquent customers who do not pay their bill until being cut off for non-payment will incur both the penalty and reconnect fee every month, rather than every other month.

Is it time to make the switch?

If you are considering moving to monthly billing, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could assist you with the process.

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© 2013 Gary Sanders