Houston, We Have a Solution

Houston, Texas

The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department delivers drinking water to nearly 3 million residents over a four-county, 600-sq-mile service area. On its website, the department defines its mission as ?protecting public health, protecting the environment and providing superior customer service.?

The department has earned the reputation of being among the most innovative water utilities in the country. As such, the City of Houston was one of the first to adopt an on-site billing solution in 1986, which streamlined the billing process by allowing meter readers to input consumption data and water service inspectors to print receipts, payment agreements, inspection notices and turn-off notices while still onsite. Then, to curb the expense of more than 200 meter readers, the department deployed an automated meter reading (AMR) system in 1998. Most recently, starting in 2010, the utility migrated its AMR system to a fixed network advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). The benefits of the AMI system and the new data it produced are extensive and multi-faceted. Most notably, applications for the new data are still being imagined and realized as the city?s needs evolve.

The Journey to AMI

As part of its ongoing pursuit of improvements, the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department regularly pursues ambitious customer service and operational efficiency goals. Confronted with rising meter reading costs and expanding service territory, the utility has partnered with Itron since 1986 to improve systems and adapt to changing business objectives ? first with handhelds, then with drive-by AMR and most recently, with fixed network AMI.

Handheld and drive-by AMR technology have resulted in enormous operational savings. Yet prior to an AMI solution, the City of Houston read and billed usage on a monthly basis, a process that left significant gaps when analyzing usage data. Customer service representatives had insufficient data and information to answer customer questions about when and how much water was used. Bill dispute resolutions could linger unnecessarily and often resulted in labor intensive back office procedures that negatively affected revenue and expenses. Itron?s AMI fixed network solution offered an attractive alternative. Not only would the system result in operational efficiencies and savings, it would also provide access to granular consumption data which could be used to bridge the gap between customer expectations and the delivery of top-notch service.

Houston, TexasLeveraging a Fixed Network

The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department started to deploy the fixed network system in September 2010, which included network administration application software, cell control units (CCUs), repeaters and communication modules, all dispersed around the greater Houston area. With fixed network technology, the utility acquired the ability to collect hourly consumption data from the communication modules and send the data over the network to the utility for bill creation and analytic applications.

The September 2010 deployment allowed 54,000 accounts to be read over the fixed network. More than 310,000 of the total population of 465,000 metered accounts transmit over the fixed network. Reliably read every hour, the data generated over the network spectrum is staggering ? 7 million hourly reads each day.
The City of Houston aims to expand the fixed network footprint and achieve close to 100 percent network coverage of its service territory by mid-2014. To accomplish this objective, the utility utilizes a special software application to plot service gaps and add equipment as necessary. In cases where the department does not have rights to public infrastructure optimally positioned for mounting additional equipment, partnerships with other city offices or utilities are negotiated through mutually beneficial ?joint-use? installation agreements. Examples include electric or telephone poles, public buildings and radio towers. This process will ensure that all water meters in Houston will be read over the Itron fixed network.

Reaping the Benefits
The benefits of AMI and Datalogging have proven extensive, impacting a number of departments and programs. The access to an array of data points for account consumption has proven extraordinarily valuable to the City of Houston. A number of examples exemplify this value.

AMI deployment has resulted in immediate operational cost savings. Weather and traffic, continual impediments to timely meter reading and service calls with conventional systems, are no longer a factor with fixed network technology: meter reads take place on schedule, indifferent to the whims of Mother Nature and the uncertainty of Houston travel times. With fewer operations personnel and trucks needed for meter reads, costs fall.

More staggering, virtual connect and disconnect features eliminate the need for expensive truck rolls ? in effect, 1,000 work orders each day that don?t have to go out to field. With these features, the utility uses the ?on-demand? read attribute of its network software by sending a two-way command to the CCU, which extracts the most recent consumption data from the meter and sends it back to the utility over the fixed network. Using this last read, Itron?s Billing Gateway software calculates the final bill. Through this process, the AMI solution translates into real savings for the Houston utility, effectively reducing or eliminating the operational expenses associated with fleet maintenance (fuel, insurance, repairs), employees? risk and exposure and insurance costs. Operational costs rarely go down, so these savings will likely increase over time.

The customer service department was one of the first to reap benefits from the new AMI technology. Customer services representatives (CSRs) could share water usage with customers in greater detail ? hourly, daily, weekly, monthly ? in order to show trends and comparisons. Armed with this data, representatives could more quickly and effectively resolve billing questions and concerns. Now, billing issues are often resolved over the phone when the customer correlates his or her water usage with significant events like filling the pool or turning on the outdoor sprinkler system.

The network administration application is used to manage network infrastructure. This powerful software provides the utility with easy access to CCU reports and repeater and communication module performance on a daily basis. Using the application, the utility can track network performance trends and manage exceptions and fault conditions as they are encountered. Operations and maintenance protocols thus rely on proactive strategies to mitigate costs and risk.

The Road Ahead

With the benefits of AMI just being realized, the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department is looking at a number of new applications for the system. Among the first was to develop a utility web portal that would allow consumers to see their consumption data over specified periods.? The initiative, coined the Cnsumption Awareness Program (CAP), sends out more than 70,000 weekly consumption summaries and more than 18,000 weekly consumption alerts. These results are from a small initial adoption rate, but Houston projects that an active marketing campaign could increase adoption of this program to more than 50 percent of its customer base.?

Looking ahead, another project being considered would bridge the gap between office and field by equipping field personnel with mobile data terminals (MDTs), like tablet computers, so they could see consumption data on endpoints in real time. They would have mobile access to customer accounts and payment information and be able to interact face-to-face with customers on premise. Lastly, the utility plans to look into using the fixed network to integrate acoustic leak detection and/or pressure monitoring of water mains.

AMI technology has proven integral to the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department?s commitment to customer service, environmental stewardship, system integrity and operational efficiencies. In facilitating the meter reading, billing and collection processes, AMI technology frees the utility to dedicate time and resources to its most fundamental function: providing accurate on-time billing while assuring clean, reliable distribution of water to residents of the City of Houston. The power of data logging and regular communications over the fixed network empowers Houston to turn data into actionable knowledge ? now, and as the utility?s needs change over time.

Mike Scarpelli is the director of product marketing for water hardware solutions at Itron.?

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