Customer centric water supply and billing at City of Houston


Interview with Tommy McClung, Deputy Assistant Director, City of Houston Public Works and Engineering

By Neil Borthwick, Smart Energy International Account Manager: North America

Could you please start by telling us about your role at the utility?
The branch I represent is Utility Customer Service (UCS) and it is the billing arm of the utility, which is assigned in the City of Houston to Public Works and Engineering Department.

This branch (UCS) includes the metering component of the distribution system as well as system integrity inspectors, the call center for customer billing and all of the ancillary support functions to core services. It’s a pretty extensive operation with approximately 380 people serving 2.2 million people across the city. Water customers directly make up a population of about 500,000.

Could you give us a brief overview of the utility in terms of metering?
The City of Houston was an early adopter for automated meter reading (AMR) technology. The effort began back in 1995-96 with installations beginning around 1999. We were the first major metro area to adopt AMR technology into the water pit environment.

As our technology began to age we wanted to move into newer more value added areas. Specifically, we wanted to leverage the existing investment while advancing our capabilities. So, we conducted an internal pilot to determine if we could introduce a fixed network in our AMR system using the current infrastructure, which consists of low power output end points.  The pilot was very successful

What we are now exploring how we can introduce long range capabilities with possible migration to two-way communication using the WiMax network being built. Our long range goal is to have the meter end points talking directly to the WiMax cloud. The industry doesn’t support this concept yet, but it is where we are going.

GIS is an important component to our billing enhancements and customer value add services efforts.  In example, through an academic study on the use of GIS to determine loss in segments of the city, we were able to take consumption points and geocode them, then use hydraulic modeling to check flow into those areas. We used this information to then calculate differences and see where losses were in very specific areas.

All of these examples are the real world and GIS tools are principal. They have been especially helpful with our efforts in standing up the new street and drainage charge.

What is the drainage charge?
The drainage charge is not new to many municipalities but it is to the City of Houston. It is associated with the cost of service to provide infrastructure support to streets and storm water drainage. It’s not really related to metering as there is no meter component, but as we represent the billing part of the Public Works and Engineering Department, this is a major undertaking for us.

The drainage charge ties back to metering via the GIS implementation and corresponding technologies we’re building around that. These technologies will help support the metering concepts and other technology advancements that we want to pursue, such as pressure sensing, leak detection, etc.

Are you working with multiple technology providers and/or contractors?
We are using multiple vendors and multiple technologies and we are integrating them through a service oriented architecture concept.

The predominant AMR technology that we have is from Itron. Another one we use is Badger, and we are going to be introducing other vendors. One of the concepts I believe in acquisition is the need to have multiple vendors to create competitive balance and improved advancements such as interoperability and industry standards.

My experience tells me standards are very important. There is a lack of standards in the newer technologies being used in water metering business and we need to overcome this. Questions that come to mind are; how do we make sure that all the metering devices are as accurate at low flow as they are at mid to high flow? And what about the end points themselves, why can’t we plug-and-play them into our systems? These are the kind of questions that come to my mind and are a part of what we are trying to challenge through our efforts in the City of Houston.

I asked as I have met with water utilities that have hired contractors who don’t even know what meters are being installed…
My own observation of the circumstances surrounding your question is that most water utilities are related to governmental bodies that typically do not have the resources to drill into the mundane detail of acquisition, standards, etc. It is very difficult even with the City of Houston to have the time, energy and resources to address the finer points that would lead to better acquisition. To give an example, an AMR investment is in radio technology, but do municipalities have access to radio engineers so that their investment is protected?

Most water utilities need a plug-and-play installation: Bring in a contractor to put in a system and tell me it works. If I write my contract well enough then all I have to do is to manage the contractor. The effect of this particular approach is that the industry vendors control the output, not the utility. Now I fundamentally disagree with this approach. I feel the first thing a vendor should ask is “What is it that you need?” It took two years to get the vendors that dealt with us to ask that question. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the utility-relationship, the utilities need to step forward and become the leaders.

What steps and plans have you taken towards implementing AMI and what do you see as the key benefits?
I feel like we may step over the typical AMI implementation, if we successfully get to the point I mentioned earlier our end points will speak directly to the WiMax cloud.

We are clearly at one-way communication right now. Through data acquisition, mapping and analysis you can replicate some of the benefits from two-way communication. Creating enough data points allows for analysis that is similar to those from two-way communications. So it is mainly about data management, how you keep all this data and how you put it all together in a usable format.

What meter data management system are you running?
We have created our own data warehouse, and are building our analytics around that in-house development. We are still in an exploratory period right now, trying to look at how we’re going to bring this to fruition. We have not invested in a meter data management application directly.

So right now what we’re doing is taking the data and centralizing our data warehouse across the department. We will ultimately look at every parcel in the city, cradle to grave. Looking at it that way, regardless of data source, you get a full picture of your universe. That is what we’re working towards.

You mentioned that the fixed network has shown a lot of functionality …
Functionality or reliability has been very good. The strategy we have taken through the migration is of balancing expectations. As I mentioned we have a 640 square mile environment with mobile AMR and we have made a significant monetary investment that we couldn’t just take out and replace, so we have had to go in with proper expectations as to what we might expect in terms of functionality and reliability. We look at our effort as an incremental migration path.

What initiatives have or are you undertaking to engage your customers?
One of the things we are doing is enhancing our customer information systems. We are in that process right now with the implementation of the drainage charge. We’re working to establish a more dynamic store front with the web and provide as much value add as we can to the customer. As an example, we are working on predictive capacity that allows us to communicate back and forth if we see irregular consumption patterns

Another concept we are working to implement is to get ahead of the bill. Currently the bill triggers all of our activity. With the information that we’re gaining through the fixed network, we have enough information before the bill goes out to make the bill become a substantiation of the work effort – in other words, here is the work we’ve done, we know this information is correct, and this is what you owe the utility. That is going to come from the data management that we’ve been talking about.

What has been the response since you implemented the fixed network?
What has really helped is analyzing irregular consumption. Most of us as consumers have no idea what’s going on, we just get a bill and then pay it. All of a sudden the bill comes in and it’s more than what you budget. Then when you call up our customer service rep and they look at the fixed network data they are able to say “From midnight to 3 ’o clock in the morning on these days we are seeing a lot of consumption, did you have any visitors? Do you have teenagers? Do you have a toilet running? Do you whatever?” and it enables them drill down on what actually occurred and why the consumption might be high. That is the biggest thing I’ve seen.

Are customers able to view their water consumption online?
Soon. That’s where we are heading, but we are not there yet. Specifically our target is to provide that as a value add for our large meter customers, the business and commercial enterprises as well as the customers on the fixed network. A lot of the customers want to be able to see their consumption patterns.

The technology that we are putting into place now under drainage, with more geospatial understanding and more data management capability, will enable us to present the information more readily to the customer.

Have you had any issues with customers over higher bills?
Not related directly to AMR. We see as many do the exceptions that surface and the work processes in place address those issues. Some of the concerns we expected were dealt with up front. For example, we did a sampling of some older meter technology and found that we were running on about 85% accuracy on those meters. We initiated a large meter change out project, and as part of that we began to meet with building owner representatives to talk about the possible issues with this. We anticipated a 15% increase in accuracy and we communicated this before the bill arrived. We needed to be sure they were prepared for the change.

Through that effort we’ve created a working group to help develop customer profiles on these large meter accounts so we can create more one-on-one relationships with them. Again, this is an example of the value add we are working to bring back to the customers of the water utility in Houston.

Are there any new services you are planning to offer your customers?
We’re looking to use the data points and provide predictive data capacity to identify irregular consumption patterns. This will be used to better inform customers that we notice your consumption is high over the last couple of days, you might want to take a look. These types of efforts I think are pretty standard across the utilities.

Have you had any interaction with the electric utility on AMI and sharing information?
We started a dialogue with them about a year ago. The electric metering company responsible for the infrastructure here is CenterPoint and they have a pretty sophisticated program that’s underway, with similar WiMax backhaul to ours.

They are using the Itron technology as well…
They are, and we hope that there’ll be more integrated efforts going forward. At this point there is not a lot of active involvement. There are some relationships that have been developed, some opportunities to share technology. I know that they have a really interesting technology lab that sometime we would like to get over to take a look at and see if we can put up something similar here.

To sum up and close on, what is the vision for your utility?
Our vision is to become the customer centric billing arm of the City of Houston’s Public Works and Engineering water utility. We want to assist integration of data points from across the Department to create a cradle to grave view of all parcels in the city. In this pursuit, we recognize our role and feel we have a lot of the technology foundation that can help establish this vision.

The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering is a host utility of the Metering America Water Meter Summit taking place April 18-20, 2011 in Dallas, TX. Tommy McClung will be talking on integrating GIS and AMR technologies to improve water billing on April 20.