Advanced metering means advanced customer care for water utilities

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By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

After the Boston Water and Sewer Commission installed a fixed-network for meter reading on its 87,000 accounts, call-center reps enjoyed a fine dividend on the investment. Meter-related complaint calls dropped some 70 percent.

This happened primarily because the utility eliminated estimated bills, explains the utility's meter services director, Mark Aigen. Estimated bills often lead to high "catch-up" bills that compensate for low-balled consumption guesses, so getting rid of ballpark figures drops call volume for most utilities that switch to advanced metering.

The term "advanced metering" refers to a fixed network that allows utilities to access consumption data daily or more often from all accounts. That data delivers several service improvements, which is why Boston's Aigen considers meter-reading upgrades as much a customer-service project as a metering one.

At your service
Among the customer-focused perks advanced metering brought to Boston, you'll find this wholesome development: While installing the technology, field crews identified which water-service lines were made of lead. Then, the utility implemented a letter campaign to let customers know about the potentially poisonous pipes. The utility also launched a loan program to help customers pay for replacements.

"We replace the lines on our side of the service," Aigen says. "I think just about everybody recognizes lead pipes are not a healthy thing to have."

Meter data are of value to customers, too. With access to consumption data online, the water utility's larger customers can slice and dice data to gain analytic insights.

For instance, landlords can look at all their properties at once or compare consumption at similar properties to look for problems. Aigen says the utility also mails high- and low-consumption notices to customers, which can prove helpful. At one public school, for example, a high-consumption report during a school break alerted site managers to a swimming pool valve that had been left open. Finding the leak quickly saved the school system "a water bill in the tens of thousands of dollars," Aigen reports.

Gaining control
Some advanced metering systems now come with supplemental devices customers can use to track consumption on their own. For instance, the Florida city of West Palm Beach has been experimenting with water-meter monitors from Badger Meter. Each unit is about the size of a card deck and comes backed with a magnet, so customers can attach it to the refrigerator.

The devices allow consumers to see their own consumption according to multiple intervals, including two user-defined periods. That means people can watch how much water they're using in a month, but they also can drill down into consumption for one day -- yard-watering day, for instance. There's a leak-alert function built into the device, too. A red light on the unit will glow if the meter has not stopped recording consumption for at least an hour in the past 24-hour period.

Jeff Stewart, field customer service supervisor for West Palm Beach, noted that his utility has been testing the devices this year. The goal: to enlighten people who've called in with high-bill complaints by showing these consumers how their water bill is adding up. "We hope to help customers understand how much the irrigation system uses," Stewart explains. The specific monitor his utility employs can be an add-on to both mobile and fixed-network meter-reading systems.

With fixed-network meter reading, utilities also can do move-in and move-out readings virtually. There's no need to send a technician. "If we turn the water 'off,' and the tamper alert lets us know there's still consumption on the account, at that point we can roll somebody out there," says Cyndi Tyree, customer service manager for the water utility of Texarkana, a town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border.

Tyree is now testing a fixed-network system from Datamatic, and she's eager for a new feature -- a remote-disconnection valve -- to go on sale in the coming month. "This is the feature I really love," she says. "Texarkana has an average of 700 to 800 accounts up for disconnect every month."

Each time utility workers go out to do a disconnection on one of these accounts, it costs about $50. The same is true for every reconnection truck roll. The remote shut-off valve will save Tyree's utility that $100 expense. Better yet, it will allow the utility to restore service connections quickly once customers pay up. Now, that's customer service.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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