NES taps small network to solve big meter-reading problem

David McNatt, Technical Support Supervisor, Nashville Electric Service

Apartment complexes are the bane of utility meter-reading operations. Between monthly reads for customer billing and costly off-cycle reads associated with beginning- and end-of-service orders, apartment complexes consume an inordinate amount of meter-reading time and resources.

This was the challenge facing Nashville Electric Service (NES), a public utility that provides electricity to more than 315,000 customers in central Tennessee. Last year, NES spent more than $1.9 million to collect beginning- and end-of-service reads from the 80,000 apartment units spread throughout its 700-square-mile service territory.

“The challenge to us was to come up with a better, more efficient way to perform these readings and to reduce our costs,” said Eddie Andrews, NES’s operations manager. “And the Itron MicroNetwork has enabled us to meet that challenge in a very simple and very cost-effective manner.”

Itron’s MicroNetwork is a network meter- reading solution that can be deployed selectively to deliver monthly, daily and off-cycle reads from electric, gas and water meters in many different environments. The MicroNetwork uses Itron’s RF communications technology to gather data from electric, gas and/or water meters equipped with ERT modules, and then employs existing telecommunications networks to send the data from local collection devices to the host processor. This design makes the MicroNetwork a cost-effective data collection solution anywhere meters are difficult to access, expensive to read, or require more frequent or unscheduled reads.

Late last year, NES and Itron’s implementation team installed a MicroNetwork system at a 426-unit apartment complex to test the technology. The system comprised three primary components: Itron 45 series ERT meter modules to record and transmit metering data; locally installed MicroNetwork concentrator units to collect, store and transmit the data to the host processor; and Itron’s MV-RS meter-reading software installed on a PC at the NES Metering Facility.

NES chose the particular complex for two reasons: With hilly terrain, many trees and a stucco finish, it represented the toughest RF environment NES could dish out. If the MicroNetwork worked well in this environment, other complexes would be no problem. In addition, with its high turnover rate, the complex was a money pit for NES’s meter-reading operations. In the previous year, NES staff made 1,532 trips to the complex for turn-on and turn-off reads, which translated into more than $28,000 just to meet the complex’s off-cycle meter- reading needs.

The Itron team was able to install the network and automate the entire 426-unit complex in three days. Itron ERT modules installed on each of the 426 meters record, encode and transmit consumption and meter tamper data through the network concentrator unit to the base concentrator unit, which was installed on a street light pole within the apartment complex. From there, the data is sent daily to NES’s MV-RS host processor unit via a cellular communications link.

Perhaps the project’s most pleasant surprise was the minimal network infrastructure required to collect readings from all the meters. Based on the terrain, the construction materials and the RF environment, NES anticipated having to use three to five concentrator devices (in addition to the base concentrator) to achieve the results they were after. However, NES was able to read all the meters using just the base concentrator and one additional concentrator-a configuration that significantly reduced NES’s deployment costs.

Based on the performance and results to date, Andrews said the MicroNetwork installed at the complex will pay for itself in just over a year. Payback will come in the form of reduced and eliminated meter-reading costs. After that, operational savings go straight to the utility’s bottom line.

“The system has really exceeded our expectations,” Andrews said. “The project has been so successful thus far that we’ve already initiated efforts to expand the system to other apartment complexes with high turnover rates. Future plans are to explore opportunities with gas and water utilities serving the area for joint meter-reading projects, which could provide other additional opportunities for cost reduction.”

While automating off-cycle meter reads was the project’s primary focus, Andrews said network meter-reading technology opens the door to a variety of future benefits, including interval and time-of-use data collection, enhanced load profiling capabilities and automatic meter tamper detection.

The NES case study also provides some new perspective on the evolution of network meter-reading technology and how utilities are using the technology more selectively to meet specific operational and strategic objectives. In a nutshell, meter-reading networks, like many other technologies, are becoming more flexible, more portable, easier to install and less costly. This trend is allowing utilities of all sizes to deploy scalable network technology on a strategic basis to meet specific needs and solve particular problems.

Itron Inc.

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