How can a utility company upgrade its meter reading system without having to replace any hardware or software? Answer – by allowing technical evolution while maintaining existing systems. This can be achieved in several stages.

The AMR system. CCU: Cell Control Unit. GMM:Genesis Meter Module. GMM/Repeater. IHP: Itron Host Processor.

One of the first steps to successful upgrading is EMR (Electronic Meter Reading), which is particularly suited to data acquisition in the field. EMR relies on reading the meter index. Data is then entered into a handheld computer, with software to process the data.

As and when needed, EMR can be upgraded to an Off-Site Meter Reading system (OMR) as a second step. The same basic hardware and software can be used. This time however, the user can read from a distance using radio technology installed inside the same handheld computer.

At this stage the upgrade will involve adding a PCMCIA II card to the hardware as well as a radio module on the meter. The evolution from EMR to OMR is often done when meters become too expensive to read, either because they are difficult or dangerous to access or require frequent reads.

It is important to note that the EMR and OMR solutions can be combined since the same hardware and software is used for both. Therefore a utility company can slowly upgrade to OMR without radically effecting the rest of the metering pool.

When the utility is ready for fully automatic systems, the final stage is AMR (Automatic Meter Reading).

What is AMR?

As in the case of the transition between EMR to OMR, the same hardware and software can be used when moving from OMR to AMR. With AMR, it is possible to access one or more meters from a client support centre using the same radio modules and software.

This system allows the utility to manage functions such as cyclical automatic reading, power failure monitoring for electric utilities, tampering detection, tariff change, leak detection, as well as account settlements.

The AMR system is sophisticated enough to allow migratory and multiple use of the existing radio platform.

Customer benefits

The use of AMR provides more detailed and accurate consumption information, as well as load profiles and time-of-use data. In addition, the ability to collect data about energy delivery allows a utility to improve its operations and provide a better service to its customers.

Billing procedures are also improved as customers do not have to open their doors to readers any more which means they do not have to make appointments during the working day. Thus they have accurate bills based on actual consumption instead of estimates.

Benefits to utilities and service providers

Time and cost savings are the immediate benefits gained by water utilities implementing AMR systems.

OMR allows the meter reader to access information by using a radio handheld computer. The reading distance on average is over 100m and the time to read a meter nearly instantaneous. It can be argued that a utility can draw 80% of the benefits of radio reading by installing radio on the 20% of the meters that create problems (and therefore costs).

By switching to AMR, water utilities will effect cost savings by communicating various pieces of information back to the end-user using the same bi-directional network. Tools like interactive customer displays that allow customers to communicate with their provider are proving very popular. Installation has started across Europe and will speed up in the coming months.

Ease of access to data is another benefit brought by OMR. By eliminating the problem of accessing difficult to reach meters, for example located under a road, in dangerous places, or simply in private residences where occupants are out all day, OMR can increase the operational efficiency of utilities.

Ease of migration from old to AMR meters is another immediate benefit. The switching from ‘normal’ to AMR-ready meters can be gradual. A company could decide to leave 95% of its panel unchanged at first, and only replace 5% of its meters. This would include, for instance, the ones that are dangerous or difficult to reach, or really remote. The utility is able to make a smooth transition to AMR, according to need, and then upgrade the system as required.

Billing issues can be eased by the AMR system too. Both OMR and AMR can directly enhance the billing system. AMR in particular allows for total automatic reading of meters as often as needed – once a day is typical – and the automatic communication to and from the billing system. The billing procedure is faster, more accurate and easier to supervise.

Surveillance and security matters can be improved as utility-wide communication networks and automation technology include immediate power cut detection notification, isolation and restoration, as well as other forms of distribution automation and power quality monitoring. In the water industry, this is probably the most crucial feature of AMR, as it can, when a water leak is detected, report back to the customer centre for action to be taken.

AMR in Europe

Some countries in Europe have adopted OMR and AMR faster than others. Hundreds of installations have taken place in countries like Italy, Germany and France, providing a real management alternative. Fixed AMR networks have been installed in France during 1998 and their smooth operation will help the development of the technology.

AMR in France

Although France is probably ahead of the rest of Europe’s water industry in many areas, AMR is not one of these yet. Even though several AMR systems are already operational in France, countries such as Germany and Switzerland have already deployed more modules.

Although the major French water companies are all examining hybrid electronic water systems closely, no radical change is set to happen immediately. As major French utilities – Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux and Vivendi (CGE) – are publicly quoted companies, additional costs will have to be justified by immediate savings elsewhere.

These companies need to maintain a return on investment. As a result, when AMR becomes more widely adopted in France, it is only likely to be via a concerted, large sized and structured effort, and only after positive results have been experienced by other European countries. Real changes can be expected this year as deregulation will already have taken place and European utilities overall will be forced to evolve to face competition to either gain or retain customers.

A few pilots sites are up and running in France. A large French multi-utility company has equipped a building in Paris with AMR systems for 150 gas, water, heat and electricity meters. These 150 meters represent several different types of protocols. AMR enables them to work together by providing a system that makes them compatible. One of the obvious benefits is the immediate rise in billing accuracy of the invoices.

One of the first AMR installations in France was at Vienne, near Lyon. The City of Vienne Water Department provides water and wastewater services to approximately 11,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers.

The department was keen to switch to a more effective and cost efficient solution to read its water meters across the whole territory. The Vienne local water department became the first utility in Europe to install AMR systems, Itron’s radio based OMR and fixed network systems. This particular AMR system can use several radio frequencies: unlicensed 433MHz in Europe, licensed 184MHz in the UK, unlicensed 918-926MHz in Australia and unlicensed 902-928MHz in the US.

The AMR system has enabled the Vienne water department to improve access to pitset meters. Very often, before OMR reading, the pits were full of water, and were almost impossible to read. Meters were left unread for months and bills were far from accurate.

AMR developments in France: open systems

In parallel to AMR developments, regulators in France are driving utilities to read more often, in order to ensure a more accurate reading and therefore a more accurate bill for customers.

Utilities will find that the costs involved in AMR system installations are off-set by savings in customer centres – fewer customer complaints, less check reads – which in turn lead to better customer service. These factors ensure AMR has a bright future.

Furthermore, the AMR system can be used and improved by adding new features. The radio network that is used for meter reading can be used to create additional services, such as customer interactive displays, alarm and smoke detection, while also possibly using other transmission systems.

The water utility will be able to communicate interactively with the customer. Messages such as tariff changes, requests to send in an engineer, do on-line reading, saving tips or surveys can be sent and the customer can reply, ask questions or pay bills on-line.

A pilot scheme for these interactive systems has now being introduced, with installation having started in France in April, that will soon be implemented on a larger scale. These products will live on the same AMR fixed network with a marginal cost for the utility. Such levels of service will improve the utility’s customer retention rate when deregulation finally happens.

Interactivity between different technologies is already happening, as more bridges between radio and telephone, radio and Power Line Carrier (PLC) and radio and Cable BUS are being developed. The utility will be able to match these technologies to its needs, configurations, protocols and budgets.

New horizons for AMR

To further enhance AMR development in France and in Europe, Itron has initiated the formation of an association, RADIAN (RADIO Application Network).

The success of this initiative lies in the willingness of the new partners to ease the funding and implementation of new techniques and technologies, and is already proving attractive to market players, lost among the different protocols and regulations.

In France especially, where utility deregulation is supposed to bring more choice and better prices to the end user, there is a risk that companies will develop independent techniques which will not be compatible with each other.

The creation of an association such as RADIAN can open standards that any member will be able to adopt and that will ease the way through the maze of the newly deregulated utility market.

The first beneficiary will be the end user, who will be able to ‘shop around’ without having to worry if his water billing system is compatible with the new water supplier he decides to choose.

This project is taking place in Europe now and is not likely to remain within enclosed frontiers, as members from all over the world are invited to join. The founding members include utilities and meter manufacturers from France, the UK, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. The association will be able to support radio protocols across Europe and elsewhere.

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