Aqua develops efficient AMR

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Aqua America, Inc. (Aqua) has recently invested in automatic meter reading (AMR) infrastructure and supporting IT systems. As a result, the process for move in/out read gathering has been streamlined and three fulltime field service representatives (FSRs) have been allocated to other customer-focused projects.

Aqua's work management system dispatches most service requests electronically according to the location and availability of FSRs. Previously, it was not necessary for the Mobile Workforce Management (MWM) system to differentiate between service requests that required physical work, such as a meter repair, and those that required a simple meter read, such as consumption investigation, that could be picked up from a drive-by meter read using RF.

Colleen Scattolini (National Meter Reading Director) and Larry Doyle (National Meter Manager) determined that by re-arranging the pieces of the technology puzzle, these reads could be gathered in bulk using AMR technology rather than MWM. Analysis showed that this would result in significant performance improvements, and would also take advantage of the supporting back-office systems (used to automate the download/upload of meter-read data, store/report on meters and automatically close service orders). These custom-built back-office systems were developed in partnership with PA Consulting Group.

A team of three IT and business consultants from PA worked in close collaboration with Aqua's field operations and customer service departments to design a new process and schedule for gathering meter reads which was more efficient and did not interfere with existing processes.

In partnership with Don Sutter, from Aqua's IS department, the team specified and delivered a revised IT architectural design and infrastructure integration including enhancements to Aqua's Customer Information System (CIS). Aqua's Customer Services managed the delivery of these changes to users, ensuring that training and support procedures were in place. The team then made minor changes to the back-office systems to provide a smooth automation for downloading and uploading meter read data, storing that data and closing service orders using that data.

Implementation of the changes into the business was critical for success. The project team recommended a phased approach that expanded out a meter-reading area from an initial smaller region. This was trialled by using a number of example download files and getting meter readers to collect reads on sample routes.

The project was successfully delivered in just two months and delivered the following benefits:

  • Significant reduction of FSR call-outs per year. This significant increase in efficiency has allowed Aqua's subsidiary in Pennsylvania to reallocate FSRs to capital upgrade projects, such as legacy meter exchanges.
  • Greater ability to respond to peak demand.
  • Timelier gathering of reads, ensuring more accurate final and initial customer bills as well as reduction in estimated bills.
  • Improved job satisfaction for FSRs, by reducing forced appointments and low value-adding work, ensuring they can focus on more complex technical tasks.
  • Reduction in back-office exception handling.

The study described shows that, to tackle some of the issues faced by today's high-tech utility field operations, there is not always a need to buy a new piece of technology. Instead, by innovatively re-arranging the existing pieces of the technology puzzle, it is possible to make a step change in efficiency and deliver new benefits to the business.

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