A Roadmap for Successful AMI Installations…and Key Considerations for Deployment

roadmap illustration

By Thomas Butler

For a water utility of any size to function properly, effective meter reading is a vital aspect of day-to-day operations. Meter reading supports both ends of the transaction, ensuring that water is being properly delivered, accounted and billed each month. With meters playing such a key role in providing reliable water service, utilities must be able to quickly and effectively read each meter on a consistent basis.

To that end, any innovation or improvement to the metering system could represent significant benefits for a water utility, helping them to make better use of their resources and save money. One of the biggest game-changing technologies to be introduced to water service is an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) solution, which allows remote collection of meter data for billing and maintenance purposes. Installing an AMI system requires a significant initial investment; however, the technology can pay for itself over time with customer service and water measurement improvements and reduced operations costs. Advanced meter infrastructure is more accurate and efficient than automatic meter reading (AMR), drive-by, touch pad or one-way reading systems, allowing utilities to immediately become more profitable and reliable.

In addition to the initial financial outlay required to implement an AMI system, utilities must undertake thorough, careful project planning to properly deploy the new infrastructure and software technology. Detailed planning can help prevent service disruptions, making the difference between satisfied and dissatisfied customers.

AMI system installers

AMI system installers must use information from the utility as well as gathered experience to determine how to integrate new equipment and data into the utility’s existing infrastructure.

Planning for an AMI System Deployment

After a contract has been awarded by the utility, installation of an AMI system can take many shapes depending on the size and scale of the project. Some utilities conduct an end-to-end trial on a small sample of meters before deploying a complete system, while others opt to implement the entire system at once. In either case, detailed analysis of the existing metering solution and intelligent planning for the new data collection and evaluation system is essential for a successful deployment.

Keystone Utility Systems, a utility industry contractor based in Pennsylvania, concentrates on AMI deployments and installations throughout the United States. The company’s experience navigating the industry-wide transition to automated meter technology has allowed them to develop efficient practices for the planning, installation and monitoring of an AMI system.

According to Kevin Callahan, director of operations at Keystone, proactive communication with customers is essential for a successful deployment. “Working with the community is vital,” says Callahan. “It’s the installer’s responsibility to give everyone the information they need before making changes to their meters.” Keystone teams aim to complete customer installation within a two-hour window; the responsibility then falls on the installation team to accomplish the job within the specified window and deliver customer satisfaction.

An Installer’s Homework

A utility and its contractor can do all of the preparation in the world, however, it’s down to the installers to interact directly with the customers and guarantee a headache-free implementation. The utility and installer must work together, create a project plan with contingencies and do other “homework” to facilitate a smooth deployment.

The introductory phase, during which the utility and contractor work to understand each other’s needs and competencies, is critical to determine how implementation must be tailored to the specific background and demographics of the utility. From determining the total number of units to the best way to communicate with residents, this period immediately preceding installation pays dividends by preventing the need for further maintenance as well as diminishing the likelihood of dissatisfied customers (and therefore customer service complaints to the utility).

AMI system installers must use information from the utility as well as gathered experience to determine how to integrate new equipment and data into the utility’s existing infrastructure. The contractor must also decide how best to inform the residents that they will be installing their new meter. Depending on the utility’s database of information, contractors call each customer to set up an appointment, send letters with details regarding installation, or leave door hangers to remind customers about upcoming work. The more detailed and personal the information, the more likely that the installer will be able to complete their work efficiently.

Front office work conducted the day before installation is the final step to ensure a smooth process. Technicians are issued a schedule complete with the size of meter required for each installation, as well as the two-hour appointment window for each customer. A comprehensive schedule ensures that installers only need to visit a customer’s property once, minimizing any opportunity for frustration. Multiple visits can lead to customer frustration, reflecting poorly on both the contractor and utility.

meter install

A utility and its contractor can do all of the preparation in the world, however, it’s down to the installers to interact directly with the customers and guarantee a headache-free implementation.

Avoidable Mistakes

In addition to facilitating stress-free implementation, detailed planning can also help to avoid simple mistakes that could otherwise go overlooked. According to Callahan, the most common mistakes occur when contractors don’t take into account special practices which the utility may have used prior to installing an AMI system. For example, technicians conducting drive-by meter readings may have rounded the numbers up or down for convenience, omitting the last two digits of the reading when entering data. Forgetting to take this fact into account could lead to massive headaches when integrating historic readings with new AMI data.

Another common mistake can occur when setting up account numbers for the AMI system: contractors must remember that houses can be bought and sold. Utilities can run into major headaches when account numbers are associated with a building address rather than the homeowner. By issuing a unique number to every account, the system can be easily adjusted to maintain consistent service and ensure that billing is carried out properly.

Mueller’s Mi.Net system

Today, AMI solutions such as Mueller’s Mi.Net system, have the ability to link meters, distribution sensors and control devices in an efficient wireless network for real-time access. This provides flexibility, scalability and added capabilities for both fixed networks or drive-by solutions.

Permanent Improvements

Automatic meter reading requires significant investment, detailed long-term planning and flawless execution, often on a large scale if deployed in a major utility. The scope of an AMI project can seem overwhelming.

But while a large installation may scare off some utilities from making the leap, it’s important to bear in mind the long-term benefits. AMI can be carefully tailored to the needs of a utility, reaching new levels of efficiency when compared with the one-size-fits-all approach of manual meter reading. AMI solutions like the Mi.Net system from Mueller Water Products are scalable, allowing utilities to implement the system in stages depending on their budget and requirements. As a community grows, the flexible system can be easily adjusted to accommodate new customers.

The Mi.Net system links meters, distribution sensors and control devices in an efficient wireless network for real-time access. This smart, migratable solution provides the ultimate in flexibility and scalability, allowing you to cost-effectively add advanced capabilities to fixed networks or drive-by solutions, without replacing the entire system. Transceivers on metering devices gather and pass data through radio frequency technology to area collectors. These gateways collect and upload the data to either the utility’s server or a Mueller-hosted server with via cellular or other data backhaul options.

AMI solutions are comprehensive, fully automating the meter reading, billing and data collection processes. Every node on the system is connected, with meters and control devices linked in a single data network. This level of integration makes it easy to organize and analyze data, helping utilities to draw insights and effectively streamline operations. Over time, the system pays for itself through the money saved by delivering services more effectively and spending less time rolling trucks to perform drive-by meter reading.

For the City of Yonkers N.Y., the accuracy of their AMI system enabled the Department of Public Works to identify customers experiencing leaks or other issues with their water service. This helped to cut down on customer complaints and service calls, as the city could engage proactively with customers to repair the problem.

“In the past, sending out 5,000 bills could lead to 1,000 phone calls with customers disputing their bills,” says Anthony Landi, project facilitator at Yonker’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation. “Now Yonkers doesn’t get those calls anymore because the AMI system is so accurate.”

When choosing which AMI system to implement, water utilities should consider conducting a small trial to study how the system can be effectively installed and used by the community. A trustworthy contractor can help to create a smooth and illuminating trial period, producing insights which can then be applied to a larger installation. By working together, planning properly, and leveraging combined knowledge and experience, contractors and utilities can work towards an AMI solution which meets the needs of everyone involved.

Thomas Butler is director of business development at Mueller Water Products. He has more than 25 years of experience working in the water industry and has served in various sales and marketing roles including distribution sales management, product marketing and management, and business development. He has also served on various AWWA water metering standards and process committees.

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