image © Péter Mács – Fotolia.com
The changes taking place in meter reading technology within the water and other utility industries are nothing short of remarkable. Tasks that were once relegated to a utility worker manually taking a single monthly reading are now being done automatically, often using mobile, drive-by technology, but increasingly through the use of fixed data transmission/collection networks. And while the changes in this facet of the business have been impressive in and of themselves, the possibilities that lie ahead for utilizing the treasure trove of data being mined on an almost continual basis bode well for both the utilities and their customer base.
Changes in Attitude
The idea of a meter reader walking a route and manually gathering data seems quaint, even outdated. Yet in many parts of the country—in both small municipalities and large metropolitan areas—the practice continues, made necessary by everything from cost constraints to access issues. For the most part, however, manual reading has given way to a host of other approaches, according to Morrice Blackwell, marketing manager for Badger Meter (Milwaukee, WI).
“It’s been more than 25 years since we introduced our first automatic meter reading system: an inbound telephone system which consisted of a module located on top of the water meter and connected to the phone line,” he says. “At a preset time, generally during the night, it would dial out and send a reading to the utility; very basic, but it worked, and it set the stage for what was to follow.”
What, in fact, followed was a continual refinement of the process. Changes included handheld devices that collected data for subsequent downloading, then progressed to mobile systems: meter-mounted radio devices that sent out a signal every five to six seconds and were picked up as a utility vehicle drove through the area.
“That was good for monthly meter readings,” says Blackwell. “So the utility would drive out once a month or once a quarter and extract all the readings and generate a bill. The real game changer occurred, however, in 1996 when the first fixed network for water—what is commonly referred to as an advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI, system—was introduced. Suddenly utilities had a system that could send a daily read from all the meters in the system. And since then, companies like ours have been finding new and innovative ways to make that data work for utilities.”