AMI Creates New Routes for Meter Readers

Terry Bullock, a meter reader for the past 25 years, is learning a new trade.

Apr 11th, 2014
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By David Smith, SAIC and Nick Hendricks

Terry Bullock, a meter reader for the past 25 years, is learning a new trade. As the metering supervisor for Kings Mountain Energy Services, Bullock and his three man crew read 16,000 electric, gas and water meters each month for this North Carolina municipal utility. Kings Mountain is located 30 miles west of Charlotte and provides utility services to more than 5,000 families.

The tools of Bullock's trade were a handheld device for inputting meter reads and a stout pair of shoes. However, manual meter reading, a hundred-year-old trade, is declining fast and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is driving that rapid decline. Just as it was a century ago when Mike Mulligan's steam shovel replaced hundreds of men digging ditches, AMI is replacing manual meter readers in similar numbers. Rather than let its meter readers go, Kings Mountain chose a different route that saves jobs while leveraging AMI.

Red dots turn to yellow then green on the Smart Grid as a Service Outage Analysis Module as power is restored.

AMI is typically composed of:
• Smart electric meters that record readings hourly, if not more frequently;
• Modular interface units (MIUs) radio transmitters retrofitted to water and gas meters;
• Data collectors that collect the meter data from hundreds of meters and MIUs; and
• Computer systems to store and organize the millions of meter readings.

To implement this AMI technology, millions of dollars in upfront capital is usually required from utilities. This upfront expenditure hurts municipal and cooperative utilities that don't have robust budgets or cash flow, and often has made AMI technology out of reach for smaller utilities. This high-capital paradigm is changing quickly, however, and Kings Mountain is at the forefront of this shift.

When Kings Mountain started its AMI program in 2012, no upfront capital outlay was one of the important criteria for the utility's 1,200 meter AMI pilot project. Kings Mountain selected SAIC and its Smart Grid as a Service technology platform for the pilot. Smart Grid as a Service provides the meters, the MIUs, the field data collectors, along with the necessary computer hardware and software on a subscription basis. More importantly, the utility now has timely access to frequent meter readings, which means meter readings are not just for billing anymore. Meter analysis readings can now be part of the daily routine.

With Kings Mountain's new pilot came operational changes: Bullock's focus is now meter analysis and the Smart Grid as Service utility portal has replaced his sturdy shoes and handheld input device. His typical day looks different as well because it includes monitoring outages, tampering alerts, consumption anomalies and disconnects without ever stepping out into the field.

Terry Bullock out on the job, reading a meter.

Outage analysis is the first part of Bullock's day. One day in April Bullock had a scare as hundreds of electrical outage alerts appeared on the utility portal dashboard. The map in the outage analysis module was loaded with red dots indicating outages. Before customers could call, Bullock and Kings Mountain Energy Services field crews were trouble-shooting the issue because Smart Grid as a Service set off an alert and allowed them to easily recognize the problem. A blown insulator on one transmission line feeding Kings Mountain was identified as the cause of the electrical outage. Soon after the insulator was replaced, power quickly came back and Bullock could relax as the dots on the outage analysis map turned from red to green upon full restoration.

The next item in Bullock's day is tamper alerts. What could cause the tamper? Did the tamper affect consumption? These are the first two questions he typically asks. High winds, heavy trucks and people are the main causes of tampers. High winds and heavy trucks can shake a house and set off a tilt alert or authorized field crews in their course of work may cause a tamper alert. None of these are much cause for concern, but a tamper alert followed by a drop in consumption arouses suspicion, and field crews are dispatched to investigate. High or low voltage alerts reported on the utility portal could also warrant the dispatch of field crews.

Consumption anomalies are the third step of Bullock's routine analysis and the bulk of his daily effort. The daily consumption report quickly reveals anomalies such as:
• Meters not associated with accounts, indicating a move-in order is still pending;
• High residential water consumption, indicating a possible leak in the home;
• High water consumption and low electric consumption is another indicator of a possible leak;
• High residential electric consumption in apartments could initiate bill complaints at month end; and
• Irrigation meters running on rainy days reveal wasted water.

Disconnects are the final part of Bullock's routine. Before the AMI program, Kings Mountain took two days to process disconnects for nonpayment. On the morning of day one, the field personnel would disconnect meters. Many consumers would pay the delinquent bill that afternoon, so field personnel would reconnect the meters the same day. For the consumers who paid the next day, field personnel were dispatched again to reconnect meters. Because disconnects and connects can now be handled through the utility portal, dozens of truck rolls can be avoided with a few mouse clicks. Using the Smart Grid as a Service utility portal, Bullock can disconnect the delinquent customers early on the first day and connect them again as soon as they pay. This means field personnel are freed from disconnect duty and they can instead work on improving the distribution system. Likewise, move-ins and move-outs are also processed through the utility portal without rolling a truck.

Reducing truck rolls supports Kings Mountain ambition to maintain one of the lowest utility rates in the Carolina Piedmont region. Reduced truck rolls, faster access to data, early detection of issues and rapid response to outages are some of the benefits delivered by AMI. As the first utility in the Carolinas to use smart meter technology on gas, electric and water meters, Kings Mountain is now evaluating all the benefits of the AMI pilot project in advance of expanding SAIC's Smart Grid as a Service to the 15,000 meter population.

"Analysis is far more demanding than meter reading and more fun, too. No more dog bites for me. It's fun to solve real problems, help our customers and improve our service," Bullock said.


About the authors: David Smith is a smart grid business process champion at SAIC. Smith, a certified public accountant, has spent 25 years improving processes in the energy industry. He can be reached at david.s.smith@saic.com. Nick Hendricks is director for Kings Mountain Energy Services, the municipal electric and gas utility for the City of Kings Mountain, N.C. He can be reached at nickh@cityofkm.com.

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