By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer
For almost as long as utilities have been installing automated meter reading, revenue assurance professionals have mourned the loss of “eyes and ears in the field.”
Even with 95 percent of the utility’s meters automated, “we can get leads from meter readers, cut on/cut off personnel, troubleshooters — anyone out in the field,” says Ron Jones, residential meter services manager for JEA, a utility with more than 360,000 water and electric customers in the Jacksonville, Fla., area. Leads also come from customers, neighbors, jealous exes and “brothers-in-law who talk too much,” he jokes.
That’s the time-honored way of finding electricity theft.
Still, Jones admits, “The old-fashioned methods are dwindling.” Today, only about 30 percent of the utility’s revenue protection leads come from tipsters. The utility relies “more and more on its automated systems,” he says.
To turn AMI data into leads, many revenue protection teams are tapping the automation features of meter data management systems, which provide “automated exception processing.” An exception is when the system sees an event or data circumstance that it’s not expecting. Examples with revenue-assurance relevance include meter readings that show lower consumption than expected, meters that don’t report any consumption, and readings that show power being used at a supposedly vacant premise.
That can happen when JEA does “virtual” service cut-offs, explains Normen Dailey, director of meter services operations and maintenance. “We don’t roll a truck on a move out,” he says. “We take a reading” through the utility’s AMI system, then send a final bill, leaving the premises ready for the next resident. Since October 2006, the virtual disconnections have saved JEA nearly $700,000 in service-call expenses.
The problem? Such automation leaves a utility open to people who move into a house or apartment but never call the utility to set up an official account. So, managers set consumption thresholds for both electricity and water use. Once those thresholds are surpassed, the MDM system automatically generates an order for a field-service technician to shut off service.
“We’ve set the parameters for very little loss before we go out” to check on accounts, Dailey says. Prior to putting in an advanced metering system, it took the utility a minimum of 30 days to find active accounts with no contract. Now, revenue protection managers have Dailey’s meter readings to find the no-pays.
The full report
JEA’s team also follows up on “plus or minus 20” reports, in which they especially look at accounts where consumption has gone down by at least 20 percent. The system reviews data over a 13-month period, ensuring the information reflects seasonal usage patterns, Ron Jones explains.
Similar reports are in use at United Illuminating, a wires-only company with 320,000 customers in southwest Connecticut. That utility has reports weighted from highest-usage offenders to lesser larceny, so investigators can prioritize workload.
At Philadelphia-based PECO, reports look for unusual usage patterns, such as usage that drops off substantially on weekends. Through the MDM system, utility managers compare unusual-usage reports with power-outage and restoration reports, which whittles down dead-end leads.
In addition, PECO’s managers have created:
* An “unplanned outage” report that spotlights accounts with more than 10 outages in 30 days. About 40 percent of PECO’s theft detection stems from this report.
* A “billing window” report to detect meters turned on or off close to the billing period, indicating attempts to force low-balled estimates or pay for only a few days’ worth of consumption. This report pinpoints around 35 percent of the utility’s theft.
* A “reversed meter” report, which finds power-out and power-up messages that occur in quick succession if the customer unplugs the meter, then plugs it in upside down to make the register run backward. About 20 percent of PECO’s theft shows up via this report.
Along with regular reports, utilities can hire out analytic services, such as those provided by Detectent, on an ad hoc basis. That’s what JEA did last year and, in November, Detectent gave JEA 80 leads to explore.
Some 53 percent of those leads revealed problems. Most came from malfunctions or record-keeping errors, but two cases proved to be outright theft.
Dead meters accounted for 34 of the cases. They weren’t caught by the utility’s “no consumption” report because they occurred on the five percent of meters that have yet to be converted to automated metering. Simple code modifications in the MDM system will prevent such losses from occurring again.
Still, with 73 of the 80 leads now closed, JEA has recovered losses that would equal $205,000 annually. That’s more than twice what the utility paid Detectent for the leads. Clearly, analyzing data pays off.
Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.