Southern metering programme ramps up

Southern Water's Universal Metering Programme is under way in South-east England. Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions' director of gas & water, Colin Kelly, reveals the day-to-day operational challenges of the project

Metering is one of a range of actions that water companies are using to encourage the conservation of water. Perhaps the most ambitious use of metering is Southern Water's Universal Metering Programme (UMP).

The UMP is a project to move 92% of the company's customers onto water meters by 2015. Metered properties make up 40% of the company's customers, meaning almost 500,000 meters will be fitted in homes across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire in the next few years.

The new meters are Automated Meter Reading (AMR) meters, which can be read by a 'drive-by' method, meaning Southern Water (SW) can take up to 20,000 meter readings each day. The meters also have a leak alarm which will help detect leaks on customers' pipes and on the supply network and can hold much more information about households' water usage.

As the contractor carrying out the installations, Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions (BBUS) is the first utility services provider in the UK to be involved in a meter-fitting project of this scale. This has made pre-planning and flexibility all the more crucial, as new challenges emerge and need to be dealt with quickly.

Key to the smooth running of installations is the pre-survey carried out before operatives arrive on site. This assesses various factors which may affect the installation process, the most important of which is the actual location of the stop tap for each property.

In many cases, this is by no means obvious or predictable, even on a road or estate of similar houses. Whilst the majority of meters can be fitted at the property boundary, there are a number of existing meters inside the property itself which require replacing.

Each of these situations can pose their own challenges. As with any project, the safety of both operatives and members of the public is the top priority and the usual streetworks measures must be taken. However, the very nature of the metering programme means teams must be even more conscious of safety issues. What's more, operatives are often operating in sensitive areas such as gardens or on block paving and even simple things must be considered in much more depth to ensure minimum disruption to residents.

Helping to protect customers from bogus callers is also a priority, so BBUS has worked with SW to ensure all employees and vehicles are clearly branded with SW logos and teams are clearly identifiable to the public and police. The most important consideration throughout this project is that the programme is universal, that is, compulsory. Not only are teams working on customers' properties, but they are doing so to install something which people may be wary of. This has therefore required not only a change in some working practices, as mentioned, but something of a culture change.

Whilst operatives are encouraged to view themselves as ambassadors for the company, on this project this has been all the more vital as customers could be actively opposed to their presence. Teams from BBUS, SW, and dedicated customer service company Groundwork, have worked hard to ensure this cultural change is reflected in customers' experiences.

Each customer experiences the same 'journey' - from initial contact to installation completion. This has helped to engage customers in the process. At the start of the project, the company was installing 250 meters per week. This has been increasing steadily over the last few months, with installation rates now standing at 1,900 per week. Active customer engagement, extensive pre-planning and a 'one-team' approach will be key to the success of the project.

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