Technology improves meter-reading efficiency for Municipal Utilities
WILLMAR -- Meter reader Gary Alsaker worries a little less about dog bites these days. He's one of two electric meter technicians for the Willmar Municipal Utilities now reading some electric and water meters from the safety of a pickup truck rat...
WILLMAR -- Meter reader Gary Alsaker worries a little less about dog bites these days.
He's one of two electric meter technicians for the Willmar Municipal Utilities now reading some electric and water meters from the safety of a pickup truck rather than reading the meter on the house and keeping an eye peeled for dogs.
That's because the city utility is using a mobile meter-reading system that transmits the readings via radio signal from the meters to a computer receiver in the truck.
The mobile system went into effect in January.
Besides reducing the possibility of dog bites, the mobile system enables Alsaker and fellow technician Paul Lundgren to read an increasing number of meters without adding more meter readers.
The use of the mobile system is the Willmar Utilities' latest effort to increase efficiency, says Larry Heinen, customer service supervisor. Due to growth in the city, the number of readings has increased from 14,000 in 1989 to 16,750 in January 2006, yet the number of readers has not increased. The number includes district heating meters.
Heinen said the number of meter readings has gone up about 20 percent since the 1990s -- an increase of more than 2,700 readings since 1990. Readings have increased about 1,000 since 2000.
"Both of those things would put pressure on maybe hiring another person, but we're able to hold our own even, with the growth in Willmar," he said.
Meter-reading has gradually become more automated during the past 25 years, thanks to the use of improving technology.
Years ago, meter readings were penciled into big heavy books carried by readers through all kinds of weather from customer to customer, and the customer had to be home because the reader had to go into the house to read the meter.
Meter books were used until the 1980s, said Heinen. The department had 50 meter books. The readers would go around and, page by page, write in the readings they saw on the meters. Moisture could smear the writing.
"When we had meter books, it was very, very time-consuming,'' said Heinen. "We'd have to come back to the office and keypunch those readings into a computer.''
If a reading was incorrect, he said, "we'd send someone to make sure it was right, rewrite it in the meter book and return to the office.''
As meters are now placed on the outside of the house, it doesn't matter if the owner is home or not.
In 1990, the city utility began using a handheld device equipped with a keypad on which the reader typed. The reader still had to walk up to the house, but the readings were protected from the elements.
The devices could also be programmed to remember where dogs live. Alsaker has been bitten twice: in one attack he was bitten three times, and in the second attack he was bitten once.
In 2000, Willmar Municipal Utilities began the switch to an automated system that uses a radio signal to transmit the readings. The system requires two types of equipment. One is called a FireFly, an electronic device that's installed on the meter, and stores and transmits the electric and water usage data via a radio wave. The other piece is called a Roadrunner, a walk-by device that reads the FireFly.
The first FlyFlies were installed in the spring of 2001. Willmar Municipal Utilities now has more than 5,700 FireFlies installed on 3,300 electric meters and 2,400 water meters.
"It helps us read meters more efficiently,'' said Heinen.
The next logical step was to implement the mobile system, which enables the reader to slowly drive through the neighborhoods where FireFlies are installed and take the readings. The FireFlies can't be installed on district-heating meters or on larger three-phase power customers.
Heinen says FireFlies were installed first on the outskirts of town where the distances between the houses are greater and where the snow can get really deep in the winter.
Heinen says the automated system is a time-saver.
"It's a big investment, but over time we should recoup in labor savings because at the rate Willmar's growing, we would have had to hire more people and we're holding our own right now,'' he said.