Rural AMI System Benefits Deliver More Than a Drop in the Bucket

Ask a water utility about the connection between advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and customer service, and they will probably tell you that their AMI system allows them to better serve customers by providing early leak notification, a simplified billing schedule and clear details about water usage. But one Chesterfield County Rural Water Company (CCRWC) customer can also tell you how communications from an AMI system helped prevent extensive water damage and provide details about a break-in and vandalism at his South Carolina hunting cabin. ?

At the start of each morning, employees at CCRWC check their AMI system to identify any issues that may have come up overnight. One morning in June 2010, utility staff noticed continuous water use at a cabin owned by a local judge and immediately called him to alert him to a possible water leak. Upon visiting his cabin, he discovered it had been broken into and vandalized. After vandalizing the cabin and prior to leaving, the intruders turned on every water faucet in the cabin and left the water running.

Chesterfield?s AMI system detected the continuous water usage almost immediately. The customer called to thank the utility, saying that without notification of the leak, it would probably have been a few weeks before he went to the cabin and discovered the damage and running water. Based on the details of the water usage, law enforcement officials determined, within an hour, when the crime occurred. This accurate, documented time of occurrence is valuable information in catching the alleged criminals and prosecuting them.
But fighting crime was just a fringe benefit of AMI implementation in Chesterfield County.

Before AMI and Smart Meters

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Chesterfield?s 800-plus square-mile territory serves 22,000 residents, comprised mostly of agricultural and poultry farms and dotted with small towns. Prior to the switch to an AMI and smart metering system, CCRWC used a team of six meter readers equipped with handheld readers to conduct monthly reads. Chesterfield has a rolling terrain with a 700-foot elevation variance from the northwest to southeast corners of the area, and over 30 percent of the area is state and federal wildlife refuge lands. The geography presented some clear obstacles that had to be considered when the utility evaluated an AMI system.? ?

Choosing the right AMI system

After realizing the benefits of fixed-based technology, CCRWC identified their priorities in an AMI system and began the process of reviewing available technologies that could support their smart grid program. They had many considerations when looking at fixed-based systems, including the number of receivers required, whether or not the system communicated via licensed spectrum, the power output of smart meters and the length of the system?s battery life.

CCRWC eventually decided on The Sensus FlexNet AMI system ? the only solution that met all of their requirements, including communications via FCC-licensed spectrum and a 20-year battery life.

Implementation

Beginning in August 2008, the AMI system and more than 7,000 water meters were installed in Chesterfield County, completing the project. To cover the wildlife refuge area and reduce environmental impact, CCRWC leased land from a cooperative landowner to install an antenna and Tower Gateway Base Station (TGB). CCRWC employed two monopoles, since the use of a typical tower would not meet wildlife requirements.
CCRWC partnered with the adjacent towns of Cheraw and Chesterfield for tower placement. CCRWC gained the use of these towns’ water tanks for the antennas, and the two towns were allowed to share the antennas and TGB’s in return.

CCRWC?s embrace of regionalization shows that small towns can make more money and benefit more by utilizing regional systems; in this case, one that ensures 100 percent coverage across the area at a reasonable cost. Partnering allows smaller utilities to implement these programs when they might have otherwise been financially unattainable, sharing antennas and equipment to save money and operate sustainably. This technology helps utilities keep rates down and provide better customer service than ever before possible.

Results of AMI Implementation

Decreased environmental impact: Unlike a dense, urban area, manually reading meters in sparse Chesterfield County requires even more manpower and fuel consumption. Prior to AMI, meter readers drove throughout the county to collect reads. Collecting this information required six trucks driving six to seven days a month, using a full tank of gas each day. Service starts and stops also required driving to the customer.

Since implementing the AMI and smart metering program, all meters can be read with 100 percent accuracy in two minutes or less, from CCRWC offices, allowing the utility to redeploy their team of six meter readers to other positions within the utility.

In addition to reducing fuel consumption, implementing AMI allows CCRWC to quickly detect leaks and other abnormalities in usage, such as the cabin break-in. The AMI system is also being used to monitor inactive meters and identify water theft. Leaks that once took weeks or even months to be discovered are now detected in six hours or less, reducing water waste while better serving customers.

Increased customer satisfaction: Implementing an AMI system has brought benefits to both the utility and its customers. While AMI simplifies the meter reading task for CCRWC, it also improves billing for the customer. The old meter reading system was easily delayed by holidays or inclement weather which created a billing cycle that could range from 27-35 days. Not only was this inconsistent, it created a burden for CCRWC customers living on a fixed income. AMI provides a consistent 30-day billing cycle every time.

Customers are also pleased by the control that AMI allows them. The installation of smart meters was paired with a customer-side shut off valve for water. At the cost of $11 per valve, customers can turn off their own water when they discover a leak, go on vacation or remodel their house. This is just one more way that smart meters allow customers to control and monitor their own water usage.

CCRWC customer service representatives were mainly inundated with complaints prior to the AMI system, and since deployment, the staff has noted a significant difference in customer feedback. Customers regularly call the utility to thank them for timely leak notification.

Positive economic impact: If AMI were judged solely for a return on investment, apart from increased customer satisfaction and decreased environmental impact, the implementation would still be considered successful. In Chesterfield County, the system actually pays for itself in 13 years. Conservation of fuel and vehicles also mean conservation of funds. The GPS installed on each smart meter also saves time and money once spent finding rural meters that may be in the middle of fields or other difficult-to-locate areas.
An unanticipated economic benefit of AMI is their plummeting insurance premium. Prior to AMI, the utility had to provide insurance for meter readers who were often met with dogs, snakes and other hazards while getting to meters. After installing a fixed-based system that eliminated the need to travel to specific meters, CCRWC?s insurance premium was significantly reduced.

Future Plans

CCRWC plans to be one of the first water utilities in America to offer pre-pay options and automated notification when pre-set water usage is nearing depletion. Plans are also under way to partner with other utilities and replace payment drop boxes with kiosks to allow for real-time balance information, payments and other services.

Other utilities frequently visit or contact CCRWC to experience the system and learn more about key lessons the utility has learned. According to the utility, the most important component of success is realizing that implementing an AMI system is only the first step toward improvement. Management oversight and proper utilization of the system is critical to reaping all of its benefits. Employees at CCRWC monitor their AMI system for several hours a day to check for leaks, towers not operating correctly and inactive meters showing usage.

While AMI systems are already delivering on the promise of intelligent water management, their current impact could be described as a drop in the bucket compared to the great potential that future applications could have on water conservation and asset utilization. Choosing a system that meets today?s needs, while offering the ability to scale for tomorrow, will be the deciding factor that helps utilities and customers continue to reap the benefits of an AMI investment for many years to come.

Charlie Gray is chief executive officer of Chesterfield Country Rural Water Company (CCRWC) and led the AMI and smart metering selection process, ultimately choosing the Sensus FlexNet? AMI network and Sensus smart water meters. Prior to joining CCRWC, Gray was president of American Wood Company and spent nearly 15 years with Carolina Light & Power Co.

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Rural AMI System Benefits Deliver More Than a Drop in the Bucket

Ask a water utility about the connection between advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and customer service, and they will probably tell you that their AMI system allows them to better serve customers by providing early leak notification, a simplified billing schedule and clear details about water usage. But one Chesterfield County Rural Water Company (CCRWC) customer can also tell you how communications from an AMI system helped prevent extensive water damage and provide details about a break-in and vandalism at his South Carolina hunting cabin. ?

At the start of each morning, employees at CCRWC check their AMI system to identify any issues that may have come up overnight. One morning in June 2010, utility staff noticed continuous water use at a cabin owned by a local judge and immediately called him to alert him to a possible water leak. Upon visiting his cabin, he discovered it had been broken into and vandalized. After vandalizing the cabin and prior to leaving, the intruders turned on every water faucet in the cabin and left the water running.

Chesterfield?s AMI system detected the continuous water usage almost immediately. The customer called to thank the utility, saying that without notification of the leak, it would probably have been a few weeks before he went to the cabin and discovered the damage and running water. Based on the details of the water usage, law enforcement officials determined, within an hour, when the crime occurred. This accurate, documented time of occurrence is valuable information in catching the alleged criminals and prosecuting them.
But fighting crime was just a fringe benefit of AMI implementation in Chesterfield County.

Before AMI and Smart Meters

Chesterfield?s 800-plus square-mile territory serves 22,000 residents, comprised mostly of agricultural and poultry farms and dotted with small towns. Prior to the switch to an AMI and smart metering system, CCRWC used a team of six meter readers equipped with handheld readers to conduct monthly reads.

Chesterfield has a rolling terrain with a 700-foot elevation variance from the northwest to southeast corners of the area, and over 30 percent of the area is state and federal wildlife refuge lands. The geography presented some clear obstacles that had to be considered when the utility evaluated an AMI system.? ?

Choosing the Right AMI system

After realizing the benefits of fixed-based technology, CCRWC identified their priorities in an AMI system and began the process of reviewing available technologies that could support their smart grid program. They had many considerations when looking at fixed-based systems, including the number of receivers required, whether or not the system communicated via licensed spectrum, the power output of smart meters and the length of the system?s battery life.

CCRWC eventually decided on The Sensus FlexNet AMI system ? the only solution that met all of their requirements, including communications via FCC-licensed spectrum and a 20-year battery life.

Implementation

Beginning in August 2008, the AMI system and more than 7,000 water meters were installed in Chesterfield County, completing the project. To cover the wildlife refuge area and reduce environmental impact, CCRWC leased land from a cooperative landowner to install an antenna and Tower Gateway Base Station (TGB). CCRWC employed two monopoles, since the use of a typical tower would not meet wildlife requirements.
CCRWC partnered with the adjacent towns of Cheraw and Chesterfield for tower placement. CCRWC gained the use of these towns? water tanks for the antennas, and the two towns were allowed to share the antennas and TGB?s in return.

CCRWC?s embrace of regionalization shows that small towns can make more money and benefit more by utilizing regional systems; in this case, one that ensures 100 percent coverage across the area at a reasonable cost. Partnering allows smaller utilities to implement these programs when they might have otherwise been financially unattainable, sharing antennas and equipment to save money and operate sustainably. This technology helps utilities keep rates down and provide better customer service than ever before possible.

Results of AMI Implementation

Decreased environmental impact: Unlike a dense, urban area, manually reading meters in sparse Chesterfield County requires even more manpower and fuel consumption. Prior to AMI, meter readers drove throughout the county to collect reads. Collecting this information required six trucks driving six to seven days a month, using a full tank of gas each day. Service starts and stops also required driving to the customer.

Since implementing the AMI and smart metering program, all meters can be read with 100 percent accuracy in two minutes or less, from CCRWC offices, allowing the utility to redeploy their team of six meter readers to other positions within the utility.

In addition to reducing fuel consumption, implementing AMI allows CCRWC to quickly detect leaks and other abnormalities in usage, such as the cabin break-in. The AMI system is also being used to monitor inactive meters and identify water theft. Leaks that once took weeks or even months to be discovered are now detected in six hours or less, reducing water waste while better serving customers.

Increased customer satisfaction: Implementing an AMI system has brought benefits to both the utility and its customers. While AMI simplifies the meter reading task for CCRWC, it also improves billing for the customer. The old meter reading system was easily delayed by holidays or inclement weather which created a billing cycle that could range from 27-35 days. Not only was this inconsistent, it created a burden for CCRWC customers living on a fixed income. AMI provides a consistent 30-day billing cycle every time.

Customers are also pleased by the control that AMI allows them. The installation of smart meters was paired with a customer-side shut off valve for water. At the cost of $11 per valve, customers can turn off their own water when they discover a leak, go on vacation or remodel their house. This is just one more way that smart meters allow customers to control and monitor their own water usage.

CCRWC customer service representatives were mainly inundated with complaints prior to the AMI system, and since deployment, the staff has noted a significant difference in customer feedback. Customers regularly call the utility to thank them for timely leak notification.

Positive economic impact: If AMI were judged solely for a return on investment, apart from increased customer satisfaction and decreased environmental impact, the implementation would still be considered successful. In Chesterfield County, the system actually pays for itself in 13 years. Conservation of fuel and vehicles also mean conservation of funds. The GPS installed on each smart meter also saves time and money once spent finding rural meters that may be in the middle of fields or other difficult-to-locate areas.
An unanticipated economic benefit of AMI is their plummeting insurance premium. Prior to AMI, the utility had to provide insurance for meter readers who were often met with dogs, snakes and other hazards while getting to meters. After installing a fixed-based system that eliminated the need to travel to specific meters, CCRWC?s insurance premium was significantly reduced.

Future Plans

CCRWC plans to be one of the first water utilities in America to offer pre-pay options and automated notification when pre-set water usage is nearing depletion. Plans are also under way to partner with other utilities and replace payment drop boxes with kiosks to allow for real-time balance information, payments and other services.

Other utilities frequently visit or contact CCRWC to experience the system and learn more about key lessons the utility has learned. According to the utility, the most important component of success is realizing that implementing an AMI system is only the first step toward improvement. Management oversight and proper utilization of the system is critical to reaping all of its benefits. Employees at CCRWC monitor their AMI system for several hours a day to check for leaks, towers not operating correctly and inactive meters showing usage.

While AMI systems are already delivering on the promise of intelligent water management, their current impact could be described as a drop in the bucket compared to the great potential that future applications could have on water conservation and asset utilization. Choosing a system that meets today?s needs, while offering the ability to scale for tomorrow, will be the deciding factor that helps utilities and customers continue to reap the benefits of an AMI investment for many years to come.

Charlie Gray is chief executive officer of Chesterfield Country Rural Water Company (CCRWC) and led the AMI and smart metering selection process, ultimately choosing the Sensus FlexNet? AMI network and Sensus smart water meters. Prior to joining CCRWC, Gray was president of American Wood Company and spent nearly 15 years with Carolina Light & Power Co.

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