You’re Fully Deployed. Now What?

AMI systems go beyond the benefits of AMR to improve system reliability and enable operational efficiencies. Water utilities can move to the next level by making AMI a strategic tool.

By Joey Mitchell

When utilities deploy an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) project, they are future-proofing their infrastructure to help improve the lives of their customers. AMI integrates equipment, communications and data management systems, which reduces costs and improves operational efficiency.

Properly deployed AMI helps utilities transform their operations. AMI delivers a real-time, remote data exchange from the control center to the meter and back again. Since smart meters are read remotely, there are fewer vehicles on the road – resulting in an overall greener footprint.

For customers, AMI provides more transparency into their water usage which improves their customer experience and helps build trust.

Basic Benefits: Streamlines Meter Reading, Customer Service and Collections

Deploying an AMI program provides the immediate benefit of streamlining tasks like meter reading, customer service, collections, theft management and related activities.

Leak detection is much more efficient with AMI. With a more transparent view of water usage, customers spot potential water leaks or spikes in usage early. Rather than having to wait to notice unusual consumption at the end of a monthly billing, customers can be alerted to a potential issue and have the source of the problem fixed within days – not months. When leaks happen, utilities are better able to implement and manage their leak adjustments programs. AMI allows these leak adjustment policies to be based on data that previously wasn’t available.

Utilities also improve operational efficiency with AMI, eliminating truck deployments, reducing billing complaints and conducting remote investigations of failures. Dated manual data collection tasks are eliminated with AMI.

Existing IT systems can leverage AMI data to reduce or eliminate information silos between teams. This share of AMI data between departments like engineering, planning, customer service, billing and distribution will drive intelligent decision making to ensure efficient, up-to-date and accurate insights are included.

AMI integrates equipment, communications and data management systems, which reduces costs and improves operational efficiency.

Accurate and detailed water usage measurement capabilities with AMI improves customer confidence in the accuracy of the billing.  Customers can expect their bills to be more consistent from month to month. Instead of measuring consumption monthly. AMI systems track usage hourly and can flag irregular activity promptly and effectively. With AMI, utilities can increase transparency by providing customers a portal so they can monitor their usage habits and adjust their activity accordingly to conserve water. This transparency builds trust and confidence when customers see that they are being billed for exactly what they use.

Strategic Tool that Drives Business Goals

Deploying AMI is a major feat for any water utility. However, it’s important for staff not to consider the project done once the fundamentals are in place. AMI systems are an enabling technology for strategic opportunities for years to come outside of the basic benefits.

AMI systems can fundamentally transform existing meter-to-cash processes in ways that drive a water utility’s long-term business goals. They can also enhance customer relationships in profound new ways.

What’s Next? Building on Initial Benefits

Like a cell phone, AMI technology will not be optional in the near future, so don’t get caught up overthinking all the reasons your utility needs AMI before you start. Just get started. Also, don’t get caught up on all benefits before your solution is fully implemented. Get started, and then build on those initial benefits. Completing a system-wide AMI upgrade is a major achievement. Once your AMI program is fully upgraded, then start thinking about what is next.

Spend time fully learning about the technology, all it has to offer and then start focusing on how your future operations should look. How can your AMI system improve other parts of your operations? What would that improvement look like? The leaders who are asking these questions are pushing the technology beyond reducing labor costs to make more comprehensive process improvements that unlock strategic benefits.

Collaboration at the Core

As your staff get used to working with AMI systems, opportunities for improvement tend to suggest themselves. Doing more with an AMI system not only requires this collaboration between utilities, manufacturers and implementers, but also across departments – something that often becomes apparent as staff get comfortable with the AMI data they receive.

When this happens, future innovations are spurred because many AMI system improvements are a direct result of utilities requesting or suggesting new functionality that streamlines operations. Manufacturers often then develop and roll out these improvements to the entire customer base.

Build a Shared Understanding of How Work is Conducted

There are meter-to-cash processes that involve more than 100 steps across five departments, and the entire process has to be completed correctly before the utility can send a bill to a customer. To get the most out of AMI, utilities need to review and re-engineer these processes to take full advantage of what the system can deliver.

To make that happen, utilities should find a facilitator (internal or external), who can bring everyone together, to have these candid discussions and make decisions that are best for the organization. The best way for organizations to realize what they can do is to understand what people currently do.

The goal of these facilitated discussions is to build a shared understanding of how work is conducted. This should be collaborative to ensure quality input is received and natural resistance to change is minimized.

Utility managers should review existing process maps and standard operating procedures (SOPs) with their department heads or, if they are not already available, have them created. Departments should evaluate all the interdepartmental activities within the meter-to-cash workflow to ensure they are accurate.

From this analysis, the team can build more streamlined and effective workflows. The enhanced information delivered by AMI systems will generate a range of opportunities to eliminate duplicate and redundant work. This takes cutting costs and working smarter to the next level.

Proactively Prevent Issues

Smart meters can send more than a meter reading. Many meters can track several data points including water quality, water pressure and water temperature that can help utilities proactively prevent bigger issues for their communities.

An understanding of water pressure throughout a system is valuable. If customers are complaining about lower water pressure in a certain area, a major distribution system leak could be causing the drop in pressure. With this data, the utility is able to target and then fix these issues faster to avoid customer down time or avoid a major water loss.

Similarly, temperature monitoring via smart meters can help to prevent water quality issues. Warmer water can attract disease-bearing bacteria. If staff know the temperature at the end of a line, they can prevent contamination before it happens by flushing that line. Utilities can base flushing and similar maintenance decisions on accurate data rather than relying on rules of thumb.

Data-Backed Pipe Replacements

Today’s utilities face multiple challenges, which compel them to solve several problems at once. Beyond aging infrastructure and leaking pipelines, water utilities are searching for ways to finance capital improvements and to make their infrastructure more resilient against natural disasters.

Water utilities are also working to take upstream and downstream systems into account. Planning smart water systems for the future entails understanding the interdependencies of these related systems. In most established communities, water pipelines have been in place for decades or longer. It is critical to ensure this infrastructure is properly maintained with pipe replacement programs.

Traditionally, utilities have targeted replacing pipes every 50 years. However, these age-based policies aren’t necessarily the best course of action. Sometimes older pipes are not leaking in the system and it’s the newer pipes that are causing serious leaks. AMI data can help utilities make smarter decisions on pipe replacement programs.

By aggregating data from the AMI system, managers can make more objective and accurate decisions about pipe replacement. Staff know with precision the flow, water levels and pressures throughout the system. That enables them to target and replace known faulty components and not just those that happen to be beyond a certain age.

Through internal collaboration and public education, your utility can advance beyond cost cutting and working smarter. You can make your AMI system a strategic resource that makes a genuine difference to your long-term business goals and the community.

Joey Mitchell is vice president at UMS and has served in this role for nearly a decade. He has a history of successful meter implementations across the United States.

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