Since taking over the chair of the International Utilities Revenue Protection Association (IURPA) Ive had the opportunity to attend a variety of training conferences and industry seminars, and to provide industry professionals with information through forums such as Smart Energy International.
I am frequently asked: “Where can I get the best bang for the buck for my RP programme?” Because of the multitude of meters, metering systems, AMR systems and so on, my response is to focus on what is going on in your service territory. For an RP programme to succeed in today’s environment, we must balance the needs of the corporation and the technology available within it with the reduction in field resources. When looking for new ideas, stay in touch with other IURPA members; they’ll tell you what worked for them.
That sounds good, but what is going on out there? It’s simple – people (and businesses) are trying to reduce their energy consumption to reduce or even eliminate their bills. RP departments generally have different strategies for different customer segments.
The needy customer is generally one who has had his service terminated because of payment issues. His mission is simple – get the power back on without the utility knowing. These customers often risk life and limb doing this, and go to great lengths to make sure the meter is not registering consumption.
Frequently, with electromechanical meters, they install objects to stop the disk from turning. Several smarter customers leave the meter sleeved, and install a wire bypass within the meter socket to divert the current. These efforts are usually discovered by the meter reader and are referred for investigation.
Similar techniques work for AMR-enabled electromechanical meters (retrofits). They may, however, go undetected for a significant period because there is no meter reader to discover the tampered meter glass, broken seals, damaged locks, etc.
Customers with electronic AMR meters generally cannot tamper with the meter to reduce the registration, so a bypass installed in the meter socket or a complete bypass around the meter are the only options. Yes, the meter will report the outage, but power is often quickly reinstalled, and most utilities will not send anyone to investigate. The customer has power until the bypass is found by utility personnel or someone calls to tell on the customer (which is what usually happens).
The greedy customer is a different ballgame. He has the money to pay for service, but wants to get something for free. The novice attempts to reduce the meter’s accuracy by changing the internal adjustments or tightening bearings to reduce the disk’s ability to rotate. If the meter has an external potential clip, customers have wired the clip into a switch in the home to turn the meter on and off, or have wired in a photocell so the meter only runs during daylight hours.
Professional meter tamperers often solicit business to serve the needs of the greedy. Recently the RP department of a utility on the East Coast, which largely relies on AMR, learned of such a ring. The service person went to check the reason for no consumption on a meter, and when he removed the meter from the socket he discovered wires connected to the potential clip going through the wall into the home. Later, the RP department found a dimmer switch installed in the home. The customer admitted he was approached by the tamperers, who told him he could reduce his bills and the utility would never find out.
After the tamperers installed their ‘device’, the customer was given directions on how to operate it. He was told to turn it down a little bit each month to a predetermined point. When running the air conditioning or using hot water, the customer could turn it down a little more, but should not forget to turn it back up afterwards.
This worked well - but remember, these customers are greedy, so they turned the device off. This stopped all registration, generating the service call. The RP department then checked all the meters in the area, and found many more installations. One of the meter tamperers was arrested and convicted, and one of his partners moved to another part of the country. The utility contacted the IURPA member in that area, with a view to monitoring the tamperer’s activities to make sure he hasn’t gone into business again.
Then there are corporations that promote an ‘energy conservation programme’ that provides financial incentives to managers who reduce energy expenses. These corporations (and we at IURPA know who they are) will tamper with the demand resets, indexes, or introduce improper wiring. They are more frequently monitored and tested to ensure they are billed accurately.
More and more RP departments are incorporating data mining to identify losses. For example, the consumption patterns of similar businesses are collated to establish a norm for that type of business. Then a variety of other data is factored in (size, sales, numbers of employees, etc.) and those businesses whose usage is less than the norm are checked to ensure there are no metering inaccuracies. Several utilities I’ve spoken to have discovered millions of dollars in lost revenues using this strategy.
It is incumbent upon utilities to be ever vigilant in protecting their revenues. The challenges are great, but the recoveries are greater.