Billing and Data: The New Frontier

Nov. 1, 2013

The sidebar in this article, “New Open-Source Standards,” has been changed to include corrections made from the original printed edition. We regret the errors.

Since the invention of meters and metering, they’ve basically served one all-important purpose–that of customer billing. Given that they merely register flows, what else could they possibly do for you?

Beginning a few decades ago, the advent of automated meter reading (AMR) allowed for a faster aggregation of data. Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) followed, and now wireless networking enables to relay streams of data to the billing shop, hour-by-hour.

But still: why should slick and labor-free data delivery significantly change the basic meter billing?

Metering and Beyond
To answer, let’s turn to the enthusiastic reception of a field-level technician in Bend, OR, after his water department fired-up an AMI network for 23,500 or so meters in 2010. “AMI really isn’t meant for billing anymore,” says Spencer Cashwell with grateful conviction. “It’s meant for the massive amount of data it can gather for you.

“If you’re looking for a customer interface and want to do water conservation, leak detection, and all that,” he continues, “it’s a wonderful tool.”

In mid-2013, Cashwell’s city department completed a systemwide meter change-out, enabling thousands of hourly meter reports to beam back to headquarters.

“Now you’ve got all this data,” he continues. “You sit back and go, “˜Wow, what are we going to do with all of this?'”

With the upgraded system newly finished, Cashwell and his department are exploring advanced meter data management (MDM) software suites that can harness it all and render it into usable, practical reports. The city’s AMI network vendor, Aclara (based in Hazelwood, MO), offered Bend a Web-hosted MDM solution, and has been tentatively selected to provide it.

“It’s pretty cool looking,” says Cashwell of the Aclara interface and screenshots. “The most critical feature for us is a customer interface. Users will have a login and will be able to look up all this stuff about their water usage. Our customers are already clamoring for it.”

He’s also looking forward to applying the software’s data validation and editing tool. He explains, “If you’re missing a few meter reads every month, it cleans up gaps and fixes small errors and omissions by looking back into the meter history and filling it in.”

Another module will upgrade the current leak detection algorithms. Still another will enable Bend to manage a water conservation program, as state-level mandates to report losses are probably on the horizon soon, he adds.

The software is a turnkey package, ready to go. “But it comes in chunks,” and that’s a good thing, he says. “You can choose to go big or stay small,” i.e., phasing-in and implementation at your own pace.

“You can have simply daily trend charts. Or you can go down to hourly ones, or up to monthly,” he says.

And, in any case, customers will be paying their bills as always–only now this will now occur “right at the portal interface,” he explains.

Dramatic Data
Another water department that turned-on a new AMI system at about the same time, in Sidney, OH, is already receiving dramatic, data-intensive benefits from it. In the three years since installing Neptune Technology Group’s (Tallassee, AL) N_SIGHT MDM software, Sidney utilities director Brian Schultz reports that he’s seen:

  • Much more accurate counting of water usage–down to just one-tenth of a gallon resolution
  • After the first fiscal year of operation, a reduction in measured water losses down to just 6%, compared to the industry average of 15%
  • With improved meter accuracy has come increased revenues.
  • Almost-instantaneous leak detection occurs.
  • N_SIGHT warning flags signal unusual conditions such as likely losses, meter tampering, and reverse-flow conditions. These are generated automatically, and same-day notifications are dispatched.
  • Should any of the data transmission nodes fail, built-in redundancy will instantly compensates for it. Batteries and backup readings are continuously logged for up to three weeks, ensuring no loss of any data.

Similarly, in Clermont, FL, after installing the same software, the city gained the following benefits, says Environmental Services Department distribution chief Tim Mattozzi. For example, the city now managed to avoid a potentially costly, state-mandated systemwide changeout in flow. Instead of having to junk all its valves, Clermont now simply monitors them automatically and replaces only the ones that trigger a reverse-flow alarm at the meter. Additionally, revenue losses are being tracked via discrepancies between metering and billing.

The leak detection abilities are also powerful and robust. Based on automated potential-leak notifications, says Mattozzi, “On average, we probably contact 40 or 50 customers a week” to inform them of possible drips and trickles. The agency has also experimented with third-party add-on software that interfaces with N_SIGHT to create a powerful leak-detection management and control console.

Finally, Clermont’s water utility can compare selected groups of meters in order to observe relative usage over a given area. By doing so, says Mattozzi, “You can find watering patterns, do leak detection, and find backflow” in these aggregate sections.

This flexible grouping feature also allows the agency to make meter-by-meter comparisons among similar accounts, within neighborhoods or areas, or at multiple commercial locations. Clermont also reduced its meter reading staff from three to one, and office staff began doing “soft” disconnects remotely, without needing to send out technicians and trucks.

MDM Software Suites
Several similarly powerful MDM packages are now newly arriving. Typically, they’re optimized to work with a given branded AMI fixed or mobile network, but increasingly they’re also “agnostic,” being able to work well with data sent via any AMR, AMI, or hybrid delivery means or metering net; and the more info the better.

Itron Analytics’ very first adopter, notes Brian Fiut, senior product manager with Itron’s water group, is a smallish utility in the South, “who were so hungry, so eager to get this kind of capability in front of their customers, they demanded a beta version from us,” he says. “They were pulling for it faster than we could deliver it.”

More broadly, the hourly water consumption information that Analytics handles “is a gold mine” for utilities, “because it represents people and systems on the demand side. That’s information which is really hard to get,” notes Fiut.

As hourly consumption data torrents suddenly outstrip what was once a the sparse monthly number that agencies were used to, he explains, “you now know exactly when the customer is purchasing the commodity, how much they’re willing to pay, and what volume they’re buying at any given time. You also know whether they’re responding to specific incentives.”

In the case of a water utility, that means a conservation program, for example. “You can see it right down to the hours,” he says.

Secondly, Fiut goes on, “the data becomes a window into your systems responses to this demand. You have the ability now to spot bottlenecks. You might discover patterns that could be representative of non-revenue water. With this, you can manage your overall system integrity. And you can tell customers their own consumption patterns.”

At industry conferences where Fiut has been introducing Analytics this year, he finds that the AMI hardware is now more or less taken for granted in the marketplace.

“Basically, we [vendors] all do the same job in functionality,” he says. “Where today’s market is differentiating itself is with how you use the data–because the value proposition is so interesting.”

The key realization to make here is that meter data can now be accessed and shared across the water enterprise. It’s no longer cloistered within billing. Now the financial staff, system engineers, conservation compliance managers, senior executives, etc., can all get their hands on both consumption demand and system response data. For that matter, so can customers.

“It’s relevant to just about everybody,” says Fiut. “And the question becomes, how will you use this integral data across the utility?”

Another key insight to appreciate is the concept of data mining on demand–i.e., “the ability to go in and create your own queries,” as needed, as we do on a Google search. “You key it in, and the system does the rest. It gets you the data sets that you need.”

Fiut, who in mid-year was still introducing Itron’s new wares to his clientele, sums up: “I’ve never seen customers more intrigued . . . than I have since we’ve rolled out this Analytics software.”

A “Mobile/Fixed” Network?
Complementing the coming of Web- and cloud-hosted MDM software these days are some innovative hardware approaches.

The following three introduce more MDM software, dovetailing it with data-collection technologies. The first is what might be called a “mobile fixed” network; the second, a “towerless” cell fixed network; and third, “do-it-yourself” networking. Each offers a significant variant or alternative to previous-generation AMI and MDM products.

Master Meter recently expanded its Web-based MDM in order to entice more water agencies to select its Web- and cloud-hosted solution (already available as a billing package). Meanwhile, the company is poised to launch a brand new AMI system late this year or early in 2014.

Master Meter Marketing VP Ian McLeod explains that, although the AMI niche is crowded, “Being the last to the market has allowed us to sit back listen and observe what works and what doesn’t.” In effect, the Master Meter product is being patterned on the strongest features of each competitor.

As for its MDM package, Master Meter’s cloud-based, Web-hosted product, Masterlinx Enterprise Management (MEM), has also undergone some upgrades. Within the past few years, as Master Meter’s Scott Bradley, vice president of the software division, reports, MEM has been broadened to handle data streaming-in from mobile AMR or fixed AMI systems, and turn it into useable management reports. To date, between 150 and 200 utilities worldwide are using MEM, he says.

One key MEM application beyond billing, for example, is zoned water analysis.

Bradley explains: “It’s ideal for zeroing-in on leaks,” isolating their likely location and assessing the severity of a possible loss. Customers can then receive e-mailed leak notices, he says.

But perhaps more novel than Master Meter’s MEM is a new product “rolled out” just last year: the Masterlinx Mobile Collector (MMC) for drive-by AMR units. Powered from the vehicle’s cigarette lighter, MMC grabs the meter data while in motion, as usual–then, instead of merely storing it on a laptop, an uplink transmits it back to the office. (Alternatively, if a city supports its own Wi-Fi cloud as some do, data can be uploaded that way, Bradley notes.)

Collectively, MMC cellular transmitters can deliver thousands of hourly meter reads from everywhere, “without the utility having to invest much money in infrastructure and maintenance overhead,” says Bradley.

Ultimately, though, the mobile collector is primarily a transitional system. “Everybody want to go to a fixed-based scenario” eventually, he says, and fixed AMI will likely become more-or-less universal someday.

A “Satellite Cloud” Meter Network?
Similarly, this next tech innovation uses the satellite uplink concept but keeps it stationary.

Developer IDT introduced a satellite-seeking water meter unit, primarily for serving remote rural locations, within the past two years. The transmission-capable meters complement IDT’s cloud-based Harmony Water Management System, a robust MDM that can read meter data from an unusually diverse array of meter data sources “so long as they have an absolute digital encoder” (as most do or can be easily retrofitted with), says IDT’s Angelo Polsinelli.

“Our whole concept in the beginning was to harmonize [disparate] technologies,” he explains. He lists Badger Meter, Sensus, Hersey, and Neptune meter brands (and others) as compatible, as well as SCADA-style flow meters from Rosemount, Siemens, and Foxboro. Getting them all to play nice together “is sometimes a challenge,” he says. But generally “the interfaces are such that the encoder can be programmed to connect with the IDT device,” and configuration is typically straightforward.

Thousands of IDT units have been installed to date, mainly at water utilities in the Dakotas.

Data-wise, IDT’s accompanying Harmony MDM software, besides doing customer billings, will display a site’s daily water usage on demand. An individual home or ranch could log in and study their usage figures if the utility allows it, says Polsinelli.

Harmony algorithms also assess the likelihood of leaks, and offer configurable settings for sending alerts and alarms. About half of IDT’s utility customers regularly use such features, Polsinelli notes. And the State of North Dakota has recently made IDT’s system mandatory for industrial water account, where usage must be tracked and reported.

Coming by year-end will be a model that can send radio signals up to the satellite, even through walls, he says.

Making the Transition
To wrap up the discussion, Itron’s Fiut offers thoughts on how a water agency might undergo a “big data” MDM transformation successfully.

“You start, of course, with a well-established AMI or hybrid AMR/AMI system,” he says. It should be delivering voluminous, reliable granular data. “You need to build up your information base so that you can check and validate trends over time, regardless of the problem you’re addressing,” he explains.

Next, he continues, “You can typically go at it somewhat on a module-by-module basis. Attack specific use cases or very specific problems within the utility that can be solved using the demand-side interval data. There are places where it fits very nicely–above all, customer service and non-revenue water. You can give customer service reps much more info in a very consumable model, a module wrapped around their world,” that provides location information, customer history, and detailed historical usage.

It’s often smart to prioritize commercial and industrial customers, he adds. You can enhance their customer service experience by allowing them to do comparative studies and find averages on water use at their locations or others.

A next step might be to apply a module dedicated to tracking down non-revenue water. This typically will aggregate groups of meters in order to identify and prioritize locales with the worst loss problems.

A third module might manage a water conservation program, and so on.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to AMI success falls under the category of change management.

He explains: “There needs to be an executive-level vision that says, “˜We will adopt this technology for the express purpose of increasing operational efficiency, customer satisfaction, and system integrity across all departments,'” he says, adding, “It’s far too easy for utilities to implement AMI, only to be stuck with their old manual work practices, without maximizing the benefits at all.”

He sums up: “In order to insure positive change management, you need to identify the business processes that are going to be affected. And make sure that changes are being driven through, from executive level.”

About the Author

David Engle

David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.

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