South from Gainesville, the next stop is Ocala, known as “the Brick City”. Currently in the throes of a large AMR (Automatic Meter Reading) deployment project, the meeting was set up with key team members: Deputy Director of Water & Sewer Operations Jeff Halcomb, Supervisor of Electric Metering Paul Baker, and Stacey Ferrante the Water & Sewer Chief of Main Lines.
Please give a brief history of the utility
The electric utility and the water utility have been around for quite a long time and some of the water mains date as far back as the 1860s. The city was pretty dormant until the 1950s, about the time when air-conditioning became feasible and affordable for many Floridians and Florida’s population began to grow rapidly.
The utility has grown from bits and pieces, but the city Utility is much larger in size and complexity. The City of Ocala has a population of more than 50, 000 altogether, we serve 32, 000 sewer customers and probably 24, 000 water customers. The electric utility has around 53, 000 customers.
Tell us a bit about your metering programs
So as the city grows, we review newer technologies and in some cases where feasible to the Utility and its citizenry, will implement new technologies. And this leads to what we are doing with AMR technology. The city has spread out so much that it was taking the meter readers a lot of time to get readings. There were many issues that were making the amount of area we had to cover inefficient, so we had to look at a more efficient way of doing business. And, with respect to billing, we wanted to make sure we could do billing more efficiently. In some areas our Utility was not able to respond and read our customers meters as quickly as we wanted to. As a result, the water utility and the electric utility formed a team to see what was out there to improve efficiency in responding to customer issues and the way we currently read meters.
The City of Ocala employed the services of a contractor to put a team together to explore with the electric utility and water utility the option of mesh network technology to make sure it was the right fit. The mesh technology was readily available for reading electric meters, however, the technology for reading both electric and water meters needed more development. The integration of the technologies took several months to develop and then testing to make sure it worked properly. The electric utility will be able to give the customer much better service and will save time and fuel costs by being able to remotely turn on or shut off electric meters. And for the water utility, one of the issues that we have had is trying to determine water leaks at our customer’s meter. So when we started looking at the technology that was out there, we paid attention to any technology that could be used to help us find where leaks were at. How the Technology works is that a meter on the mesh system can be made to produce a reading once an hour and during a specific part of the day, the reading should be zero, if the reading is not zero for that particular part of the day, there is most likely a leak at that address.
The biggest piece of the puzzle has been billing. When the Automatic meter reading system is in full operation, and because of the ability to get remote readings, we will then be able to reduce the amount of errors in reading the meters and the potential for the meter readers to get bitten by a dog. It should be more efficient and give our Utility a more accurate meter reading.
What about outage management from electric meters?
The electric meters from the AMR system essentially let us know when there’s an outage. With the meters that we will be using, there is an integrated technology called “last gasp” So when the power fails on that meter, it sends out a signal to the other meters and to the collector to let us know where the outages are. We will be able to determine the size and exact location of the outage is before we send out a crew. The AMRI system’s remote disconnect/reconnect capability will save us a lot of driving time with customer requested cut offs and reconnections. We currently have very good response time for outages, but with the implementation of this new technology response times will be shorter than ever.
We’re also going to have all of our meters located by GPS. Going back to after the hurricanes in 2004, much of our time was spent just looking for the meters under mountains of debris. Now we will know exactly were they meters are within 1 meter. By having GPS locations on every water and electric meter, we will be searching more efficiently and saving more energy.
How have you dealt with customer engagement?
Early in the program, we implemented a pilot project that allowed us to see what the technology had to offer, see how functional its going to be and note any issues that may arise. That project was well received. During full implementation, customers will be notified as the project moves through their area. Bill inserts and door hangers will be utilized to keep customers informed.
The system will give us kWh and demand information, so we’ll be able to see where our higher usage and lower usage areas are. We’ll be able to determine and balance our load a lot more accurately.
We will be able to track use on the water meters, and therefore be able to track demand. So with future projects we can perhaps better design and be able to go to the customer and see exactly what the meter reading is – being able to monitor leaks. This will help the customer understand the conservation factor of all of this.
What are your experiences with energy theft?
We have our share of theft of Utilities, but the thieves are a less successful now than they were in the past. While we have developed successful methods for detecting current diversion, these meters are certainly going to be a big asset in that regard. There are switches internal to the meter that will be able to tell us if there has been meter tampering.
I think the system will grow with us, as we grow. The system is ever-increasing in capability. Future modules may bring technology unknown to us today.
How would you describe the future of the utility?
Comparing the services that we currently offer our customers, to what will be available in ten years; there will certainly be many customer service enhancements. One possible refinement would be an electronic module on the customer’s refrigerator that allows the customer to monitor their daily usage. We will be able to offer more services and more detailed information to our commercial customers. We will be able to better manage outages and reduce outage time, reduce our response times. We will be able to provide our customers with the option to take on prepay; some people prefer that, and this can be arranged more easily with an AMR system.