Within the utility sector two significant and discernible trends are the move towards joint utilities and the use of some form of automatic meter reading (AMR) – often in conjunction with increasingly sophisticated billing systems, tied in with one of the new CRM (customer relationship management) packages. A recently instituted trial in Egypt, sponsored by USAID as part of the Secondary Cities Project, is a good example of these fundamental changes within a utility sector now much influenced by new technology.
The trial is taking place at three sites – Mansoura, Nuweiba and Luxor – and involves some 2000 installations, including domestic applications, small businesses and hotels. The product on trial is a revolutionary new combination of the latest electronic metering equipment from the electricity and water sectors.
The new system was jointly developed by two leading companies in the metering field – Horstmann Controls, a leading UK manufacturer of electricity meters, and the metering services division of Severn Trent Services, itself part of Severn Trent, one of the world’s leading water companies. A further key player in the trial is Chemonics International, which initiated the project on behalf of USAID and has been involved with much of the logistical development as it has progressed. In addition to the technical and operational advantages for the utilities provided by the new system, Chemonics was particularly interested in the prepayment option offered as part of the package. Customer billing and collection efficiency in the water sector is a specific part of the agenda for the Secondary Cities Project.
Briefly described, the system relies on an electricity meter connected to an electronic water meter, which in turn is connected to a flow control valve in the water supply. Readings from both the electricity and water meters are transmitted automatically to the billing system via the electricity power lines. This form of data transfer is used in other systems and is well established as being extremely cost effective, but the Horstmann package offers some unique features at both data collection and billing, which attracted the Chemonics team.
REAL TIME DISCONNECT
The utility, and in the Egyptian trial this means both water and electricity suppliers, can drill through the data to get analysis of demand down to individual consumer metering points, as well as providing useful network information. However, the real break-through in the system is the ability to switch off supply to non-payers in real time. (In the case of water, the Egyptian authorities have opted for a reduced trickle supply). Supply can also be switched on again remotely at the utility offices.
Bad payers can also be switched on to a prepayment system inherent in the Horstmann software; once again this happens remotely from the utility offices. This facility can be applied in different ways depending on the utility preference, but the end result is clearly advantageous. For the first time, an inexpensive and effective way to install a prepayment facility using standard billing arrangements, without the need for costly and complicated smartcard or direct payment meter systems, has been achieved.
An extension capability is also available, whereby the whole system can be linked to payment via the retail banking sector. The local banks would handle all payments, either by direct cash transactions through their branch network or some form of direct debit from customer accounts. This idea offers a new service to attract customers where penetration by retail banking may be low. The versatility of the new software allows for an easy adaptation to this type of third party involvement in utility billing.
ADVANCED WATER METERING TECHNOLOGY
In addition to the advantages of the system as a whole, the individual elements of the package offer some unique features of their own. The water meters produced by Severn Trent Services are completely electronic, with no moving parts which can wear or jam. Other manufacturers offer so-called electronic water meters, but these are usually mechanically operated with some form of electronic registration. The important difference is that the Severn Trent Services meters do not register air in the system (a major challenge to the credibility of any prepayment system) and do not under-register with time and wear.
In any population of mechanical meters, many will be significantly under-registering by percentages that can be well into double digits. This gradual attrition on water utility revenues often goes unnoticed, but can account for a significant drop in income. Until now, the only way to counter this was expensive and frequent replacement cycles or unpopular and unnecessary rises in water prices
AUTOMATIC REMOTE METER READING AND DATA ACCESS SYSTEMS
Rapid consumer demand for utility services is placing considerable pressure upon generating, distribution and supply infrastructures. In addition, deregulation in the utilities sector is forcing utility product and service providers to improve financial performance and deliver increased levels of customer service, while introducing a range of broader product and service offerings.
Paradoxically, utilities faced with the greatest challenges towards addressing increased consumer demand for power and water, reducing non-technical losses and protecting revenue are organisations that currently deploy basic metering products and outdated metering management practices.
Traditional automatic remote meter reading and access (AMR) systems generally provide the means to read limited consumption information from electricity, water and gas meters installed at consumer premises using a remote, central computer workstation. Advances in AMR system technologies introduced by Horstmann Controls now enable utilities and metering service providers to address important issues associated with revenue protection, demand side management, intelligent load control and non-technical network losses.
In addition to direct financial gains through metering operations, the Horstmann AMR system also provides for less obvious yet important benefits such as improvements in customer services, facilitating a platform for broader value-added services and assisting a reduction in power station airborne emissions.
SYSTEM AND COMMUNICATIONS ARCHITECTURE
The Horstmann AMR system provides an ‘end-to-end’ method of communicating data bi-directionally between connected utility meters, data concentrators and AMR operating software installed at central computer workstations. Application layers of the system software are also held at data concentrators to provide distributed intelligence and access to metering data. Data held within central software is available for export to a master customer relationship management (CRM) database where available.
A customer display unit is available for use by the consumer to display readings from connected electricity, water and gas meters. Of attractive aesthetic design, it can be installed in a kitchen or utility room.
Electricity meters are connected to data concentrators using the utility’s existing low voltage supply network. Electricity meters also include interfaces that accept signals from encoded water and gas meters. Water and gas consumption information is displayed at the electricity meter and available at data concentrators and at the central computer workstation.
Connection of data concentrators to central AMR computer workstations is facilitated through an option of standard communication systems such as PSTN and dedicated telephone networks, VHF-radio, SCADA, GSM or fibre-optic.