utility information pipeline

Invitation to participate in 2019 Utility Fee Survey

You’re invited to participate in the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. I’m researching what fees different utilities charge and how much they charge for each fee.

Previous Survey Results

I conducted similar surveys in 2012, 2015, and 2017. You can review the results of those surveys here:

The Utility Fee Survey is a biennial survey, alternating years with the Utility Staffing Survey.

The results of the survey will be published in a series of upcoming e-mail newsletters. 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 2019 Utility Fee Survey

If you would like to participate, 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 hoping 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 2019 Utility Fee Survey.

Is your fee schedule up-to-date?

If, after completing the 2019 Utility Fee Survey, you’re wondering if your fee schedule is up-to-date, 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 you prepare for the transition.

 

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© 2019 Gary Sanders

Data analysis and manipulation tools

A big part of my work, in addition to sales presentations and consulting, is data analysis and extraction. Data extraction often involves deciphering older, flat file databases. To accomplish this, I rely on several software tools to make my job easier. In today’s issue, I’ll share some of those tools with you.

TextPad

If you’re familiar with Notepad, the default Windows text editor, it can be frustrating to work with if you’re trying to manipulate or better understand text files. Looking at text files with long records, such as a meter reading interface file or outsource billing export file, can be frustrating with Notepad because it uses word wrap. With word wrap, trying to determine where one line ends and the next line starts can be difficult.

My personal favorite text editor is TextPad. TextPad offers several features not available in Notepad. In addition to not word wrapping, it also displays the line and column positions of where the cursor is located, which comes in very handy when trying to determine if data is in the correct position. The screenshot below shows the cursor is on line 65, column 648.

TextPad can also open files in binary mode, which shows each byte of data as the two-digit hexadecimal value. This is most valuable when trying to find binary or packed numeric data in a flat file. In the illustration below, 129906 is the current meter reading, but because it is stored as binary data, it’s not visible in the margin like the meter number (02779619) is.

Another TextPad feature I use frequently is Find in Files. This allows me to search all files, or a wildcard representation, for a particular value. I often use this when first trying to determine which files are important for a data conversion. If I know an account number, I can search all the data files to see which of those file contain the account number.

Excel

Let me start by saying Excel is a terrible tool to use to exchange data. Excel notoriously tries to convert everything it can to numeric data. This means leading zeros get dropped from fields where they are important (like the meter number in the illustration above). Also, long numeric fields often get converted to scientific notation.

However, that doesn’t mean Excel isn’t a valuable tool for data analysis, just don’t use it to exchange files!

One of the most obvious uses for Excel is to open delimited (tab, CSV, pipe) files. Excel arranges the data in columns, making it much easier to review than opening a delimited file in a text editor. Once data is in columns, it can easily be sorted and filtered. Filtering data is another feature I use frequently. If I’m working with a file that has a column of codes and I want to know how many unique codes are represented, Excel’s filter function is what I use. In the screenshot below, I have a column called Account Class. To determine what codes are represented in the Account Class column, all I had to do is turn on filtering and click the dropdown arrow for the Account Class column and it shows me the three unique values of C, M, and R:

CSVed

One last tool I use less frequently than the others, but still rely on, is CSVed. As the name implies, this is a CSV, or any delimited file, editor. Excel has a limit to how large a file it can open which can be frustrating with very large files. CSVed doesn’t have that limitation and it will also allow me to filter records to save a subset of a large file.

For example, If I’m trying to analyze a history file that has billing, payment, and adjustment records, CSVed provides the functionality to export just one of the record types, for example, adjustments. This provides a much more manageable file to analyze and open in Excel.

Need assistance extracting old data?

If you’re trying to extract data from an old database and need assistance, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how I could assist you.

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© 2019 Gary Sanders

Have you considered self-insuring your leak adjustment insurance?

Have you looked into offering an insurance program to insure your customers against having to pay for the water lost when they have a leak?

There are a number of for-profit companies offering leak protection insurance, so it must be a lucrative business. We met with a prospect recently who is considering self-insuring their own leak adjustment program. The concept of self-insurance in government has been around for a while and is very popular with some local governments.

Calculating the premium amount

The prospect I mentioned above is going to total their water leak adjustments for the most recent year and divide that total by the number of active water customers. They anticipate the premium will be about $.25 per customer. They plan to offer coverage for one leak per year and they will forgive excess usage for two consecutive billing months. Should the customer not get the leak repaired in a timely fashion, and the excessive usage extends into a third month, that will not be covered by the leak insurance.

Allowing customers to opt-out

This utility plans to give customers the option of opting out, if the so desire. However, that means they will get no assistance in the form of a leak adjustment, should they have a leak.

Making the program even more lucrative

This utility also has primarily AMI meters, so if they practice proactive leak detection, they can further mitigate the cost of leak claims they must pay, providing their customers cooperate and address a leak as soon as they are notified of one.

Is a leak insurance program for you?

Are you trying to decide if you should implement leak insurance? Furthermore, are you trying to determine is self-insurance makes sense? If the answer to either question is “yes”, 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 inform your decision-making process.

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© 2019 Gary Sanders

Can we save money by printing our own bills?

I’ve written about why I believe outsourcing the printing of bills is a smart, labor-saving move for utilities. To underscore the labor-saving aspect of outsourcing, the results of the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey showed that 28 of the 32 most efficiently staffed offices outsource their bill printing.

In spite of this, about once a year we have a customer seriously consider bringing the bill printing and mailing process back in-house, ostensibly to save money.

Is it really cheaper to mail bills ourselves?

When all factors are considered – CASS certification software and ongoing maintenance, paper stock and toner or ink to print the bills, the time involved in printing, bursting, folding, inserting, and packaging bills for the Postal Service – I don’t believe it’s any cheaper to print your own bills in-house.

In addition, many outsource printers combine all their mail for the day – yours and any other utilities or businesses they may be mailing that day – to maximize the postage discount. Postal discounts are based on the number of pieces of mail being sent to the same 5-digit ZIP code, then to the 3-digit ZIP prefix, if there aren’t enough pieces to qualify for the 5-digit ZIP discount.

For example, Raleigh’s 3-digit prefix is 276. You may have a few pieces being mailed to ZIP codes starting with 276, but not enough pieces to qualify for a discount. If the outsource company has mail from other mailers going to the Raleigh 276 prefix, they are able to combine yours with the other mail to qualify for a better discount. This simply isn’t an option if you are mailing your own bills, even if you are using CASS certification software.

A little known fact

Many outsource printers have a postal service employee on-site to inspect outgoing mail and insure that all USPS policies are being followed. In cases such as this, mail from the outsource printer enters the mailstream directly without first going to a regional facility.

This isn’t the case when you mail your own bills. You must take your packaged mail to the local post office. From there it most likely is sent to a regional facility for sorting before it enters the mailstream. This generally adds at least a day to the time it takes your customer to receive their utility bill in the mail.

Want to really save money?

As discussed in the last issue, a way to offset the cost of mailing bills is to offer ebilling and encourage your customers to request ebills rather than receiving a paper bill in the mail. For each customer who opts in to ebilling, you save not only the cost of postage associated with mailing their bill, but also the cost of the paper stock and envelopes.

To encourage ebilling, some utilities offer incentives such as a one-time or monthly recurring credits on the customer’s account.

2019 rates dashboard for North Carolina

I’ve written in the past about resources, including the Environmental Finance Center at UNC. The EFC has just released the North Carolina Water And Wastewater Rates Dashboard for 2019. This dashboard contains rates for 499 utilities in North Carolina.

Need help deciding?

Are you trying to decide if you should move to outsourcing (or continue to outsource if you’re already doing so)? If so, 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 inform your decision-making process.

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© 2019 Gary Sanders

Mitigating the cost of printing full-page bills

I recently saw a listserv post inquiring about the pros and cons of moving from postcards to full page bills, as well as asking about the costs associated with making the switch. In the same vein, I know we have customers who have resisted transitioning from postcards to full-page bills due to the increased costs, primarily postage.

Postal rate increase

A postage rate increase went into effect on January 27. You can see these new rates here. Using these new rates, let’s examine the difference in postage between postcards and full-page bills.

If you use an outsource printer, they will perform the CASS certification and presorting to qualify for the best possible discount. Under the new price structure, automated presorted mail sorted to the 5-digit ZIP code now costs $.383 per piece. This would include the majority of your bills that are mailed to local addresses. Bills mailed to out-of-town addresses will be slightly more, depending on how many are mailed to the same 3-digit ZIP prefix.

The best rate for a postcard is $.257 per piece, but you have to be using CASS certification software to be eligible for this rate. If you are just presorting by ZIP code, without using CASS certification software, the rate is $.28 per postcard. And if you’re not presorting at all, you’re paying the full rate of $.35 per postcard. For purposes of this illustration, let’s assume your software prints postcard bills in ZIP code sequence and that’s the only presorting you’re doing. Here is the comparison between postcards and first class postage:

Difference in price alone

The above illustration shows nearly a 27% increase in postage cost for switching from postcards to full-page bills. What this doesn’t take into account is the intangible benefit of being able to present more information on a full-page bill and being able to include a return envelope.

Most outsource printers include a window return envelope which allows your return address, with barcode, to show through the window. If your customer mails their payment, the inclusion of a bar-coded return address speeds the processing through the postal sorting facility over a hand-addressed envelope that must have a barcode manually applied.

Labor savings

In addition to the intangibles, using an outsource printer results in very tangible labor savings in your office. Your staff no longer needs to attend to a printer printing bills or prepare the bills for mailing. This is all handled by the outsource printer.

Ebilling alternative

Another way to offset the increased cost of first-class postage is to offer ebilling and encourage your customers to request ebills rather than receiving a paper bill in the mail. For each customer who opts in to ebilling, you save not only the cost of postage associated with mailing their bill, but also the cost of the paper stock and envelopes.

If you can convince 27% of your customer base to opt-in to ebilling, the switch from postcards to full-page bills will result in no additional cost! Depending on the demographics of your customer base, this percentage is not unreasonable.

Need help deciding?

Are you trying to decide if moving to full-page bills or outsourcing your bill printing would be cost effective for your utility? If so, 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 inform your decision-making process.

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© 2019 Gary Sanders

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Gary Sanders

I am the Senior Consultant with Logics, LLC in Raleigh, North Carolina. I have over 35 years experience developing and implementing utility billing and financial software and consulting with utilities and municipalities. My bi-weekly email newsletter draws from my experience in working with over 200 utilities and local governments to offer insight into how utilities can improve operations and better serve their customers. If you have a comment or a suggestion for a future email, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or sending an email to gsanders@logicssolutions.com



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