By O. Wayne Young and Donald Nasby, JEA
JEA (formerly Jacksonville Electric Authority) provides electric, water and sewer services for more than 400,000 customers in Jacksonville, Fla., and surrounding counties. In 2001, JEA began its advanced meter reading project, dubbed NMR (network meter reading) to provide automated read capability for all of its 400,000 electric meters (as well as 365,000 water meters associated with those accounts).
The NMR project consisted of retrofitting or replacing meters to allow communications across a fixed telecommunications network using Landis+Gyr’s Cellnet technology. The program, now titled advanced metering systems (AMS), transitioned completely in 2007 and is fully integrated into the daily maintenance and operations to include connection to a meter data management system, customer information system and data warehouse where data reads are collected, stored and analyzed to support functions from routine billing to load and demand management research.
Before AMS, JEA employed 67 meter readers to provide monthly billing reads for some 765,000 meters within its 1,100-square-mile territory, which includes Jacksonville—the largest continental U.S. city by landmass—and some areas in the surrounding counties. With the advent of AMS, manpower has been reduced by two-thirds to a force that is responsible for reading some 65,000 water-only accounts in adjacent counties, as well as collecting miscellaneous missing reads, re-reads, investigations and sundry repairs.
With all of the gains that the AMS program provided, there was a major, yet subtle, loss: Fewer meter readers resulted in a reduction in eyes and ears on the ground inspecting and accessing the material condition of meters. In some cases, there are water and electric meters approaching seven years without an actual visit by a meter reader. Some subterranean water meters have become entombed by earth and grass while continuing to transmit reliable, billable reads. The absence of monthly visits does not allow for frequent assessment of a meter and curtails early abatement of damage or tampering. For entombed water meters, it might take a trained meter reader 20-30 minutes of probing to find a meter that might have recently failed.
Establishing Validation, Inspection Program
In summer 2008, the meter reading department developed a program to inspect and validate electric and water meters that were not being visited monthly as a result of the NMR program.
As the program requirements were being developed, it became evident that an effort to visit every meter would be an opportunity to gather an array of metrics. The wish list of information to collect for each meter grew to include:
- Current meter reading (part of the reading validation),
- GPS coordinates,
- Can’t read reasons,
- Condition of the asset (safety and replacement issues),
- Tampering metrics,
- Color and condition of seal (electric only),
- General operational comments,
- Date and time of validation,
- ID of meter reader, and
- Digital photograph of asset, if needed for tampering issues.
Selecting Hardware, Software for Data Entry
With more than 100 years of combined experience in the meter reading environment, the JEA meter reading management team composed hardware device requirements ranging from compatibility with environmental conditions to adaptability with personnel requirements. The selected hardware device had to be waterproof to deal with Florida’s high humidity and rain. It also needed to be handheld, portable, lightweight and rugged. Additional requirements called for a GPS device and a built-in digital camera.
The evaluation was intensive and resulted in a product matrix that enumerated characteristics such as price, CPU speed, operating system, memory, storage and MIL-STD for each manufacturer and model. Detailed assessment led to the selection of the NOMAD 800LC made by TDS. The fast CPU (808 MHz), Windows Mobile 6, 128 MB of memory and 1 GB of storage, built-in GPS, 2 megapixel camera, and the ruggedness to support the working environment made it the device of choice.
Successful implementation and execution of JEA’s validation and inspection program depended on the capability to reliably transfer and manage data across different systems from PDA field entry data by technicians to uploading data to office PCs. The next step was to find software that would allow flexibility, compatibility and expansion in data management. Moving data from the access database on the PC to the Microsoft Windows Mobile 6 suite on the PDA and back again is one example of the challenges that would have to be overcome to share data across the organization.
After research and evaluation, a database software product was found that bridged the data management and transfer gap. The software Visual from Syware Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., proved capable of providing in-house ability to quickly design and build customized applications for the NOMAD PDAs.
Within a few weeks, working prototypes of database forms were developed to provide an on-site repository for data gathered by field technicians. While the Visual CE forms and macros were being designed and created, the data files and queries within Microsoft Access were developed to provide the back-office management of the data and the handshaking with the software on the NOMAD PDAs.
Deployment and Data Collection
After the initial field verification, the program launched in January 2009 with the deployment of five NOMAD PDAs. The units have proven user-friendly and reliable. The design of the forms used for data entry has been a significant factor in the speed in which data can be reliably entered (see data in Figure 1).
The number of meters visited and data collected varies according to the lot sizes and meter types. On a good day, a meter reader will collect data on 800 meters. The average tends to be 400 meters a day. A typical day with five units deployed in the field could result in as many as 4,000 meters being inspected. Every day the data is uploaded to the Microsoft Access database, and at the end of each week queries are run and reports generated. Each report on meter performance is used by other JEA departments to research or troubleshoot discovered issues. In addition, a monthly data file containing all latitude and longitude coordinates for each inspected meter is provided to the GIS department (see Figure 2).
Data is downloaded to the PDA daily for one of the 20 cycles of meter reads that has just been billed. The meters are further subdivided into routes. As a meter reader walks a route and validates the necessary data, problems are uncovered in the forms of sequencing and out-of-book exceptions (see sidebar definitions). These are matters that ordinarily would not be detected easily within an AMR environment.
When the meter reading department undertook this challenge, there was recognition that this was uncharted terrain. There were unknowns and resistance. Persistence and due diligence eventually resulted in a product and process that exceeded expectations.
O. Wayne Young is director of meter reading, billing and revenue collections at JEA. He specializes in corporate planning and performance improvement through technology management.
Donald Nasby is an analyst for the meter reading segment at JEA. He specializes in data assimilation and analysis.
JEA recently was awarded The Association of Work Process Improvement Award as the organization that demonstrated the best creative business process and innovative development through exceptional application technology for 2009.
Sequencing: As a meter reader walks from meter to meter on a route, he or she records the real-time information on each form of the PDA for every meter visited. At the end of the day, a query can run to determine whether the current sequence for reading the meters in a particular route is desirable or if the route should be re-sequenced for optimal reading.
Out-of-book: An out-of-book situation occurs when a meter reader encounters a meter along the route being read that does not correspond with the meter information in the PDA for the address being checked. When this occurs, the meter reader notes the address and the correction is made back in the office.