A Perfect Match: Wi-Fi plus automated meter reading (AMR)

By Al Perlman
This article appears in the Spring 2007 Issue of MuniWireless Magazine.

How the marriage of WiFi and AMR could transform meter reading

If ever there was an application custom made for WiFi it is automated meter reading, or AMR as it is called by the cognoscenti.
WiFi makes the process of remotely reading water, gas and electric meters more efficient, less expensive, simpler and less risky. As a single application, it has the potential to generate sufficient ROI to pay for the entire cost of a municipal WiFi network over its life span, with enough left over to pay for a bunch of other services and applications. It’s good for employees, citizens and the environment.

In short, WiFi has the potential to do for automated meter reading what the Internet has done for home shopping or music distribution. It is, by all measures, a transforming technology.

That being the case, everybody’s doing it, right?

Not quite.

In fact, very few municipalities are implementing WiFi-based AMR systems.

Why?

Two main reasons:


1. The technology is new and, in some cases, still in development. Not only are there few successful deployments to reference, but the vendors of AMR equipment are just now updating their gear to take the best advantage of the capabilities WiFi can deliver.


2. Despite all of the promised benefits of WiFi-based AMR, the reality is that deployment is a massive undertaking requiring a major commitment of time, money and manpower.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, which has become the poster child for WiFi-based AMR, the city is retrofitting or replacing every one of its 146,000 water and gas meters. That means sending a worker out to every house in the city, a process that will take five years to complete. More than that, Corpus Christi is committed to investing more than $20 million in the AMR deployment over the projected 20-year lifespan of the system.

Is it worth it?

Here’s one way to look at it: The city estimates that if it wasn’t spending the $20 million on the AMR system, it would be spending close to $50 million over the same 20 years with its current system. That’s a $30 million savings to the city over 20 years. If the city had gone to a traditional drive-by AMR system, as opposed to a WiFi-based system, it would have spent more than $32 million over the 20 years.

Beyond that, the city is saving water because the system is much more efficient than either a drive-by system or the previous “system” of sending a meter reader out to every house, which entails problems of its own (see related story). The city is operating more efficiently, it is redeploying city workers and it is delivering much better services to citizens. Not to mention the fact that the city has gotten a WiFi network that is being used for dozens of other applications, including health care, public safety, public works, building inspection and public access.

So, yes, the city believes it’s worth it, in spades.

Experts believe that municipalities all over the United States will soon reach the same conclusion.
“Everybody who’s putting in a WiFi network will be engaging water and gas as a cornerstone application,” says Jeffrey King, director of sales and marketing for Northrop Grumman IT Utility Systems, the prime contractor for Corpus Christi. “It’s going to happen ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ San Francisco, eventually Philadelphia. Once you put up a network, you need to use it for the stuff that most benefits you ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ and AMR just makes so much sense.”

The Pre-WiFi Era

The deployment of AMR technology differs between the types of meters being read: Electric meters are treated differently than gas and water meters. Even the terminology is different: While people in the industry use AMR as a catch-all phrase for most meter reading deployments, the acronym used most often in electric utilities is AMI, for advanced meter infrastructure.

The big difference between electric meters versus gas and water meters is that electric meters have easy access to electric power, while gas and water meters must run on batteries. Also, new regulations are forcing electric meters to support two-way communications to help conserve energy, while gas and water meters generally don’t need to meet that requirement.

Prior to WiFi, most AMR deployments have used short-range RF transmitters to send information to a person who is either walking or driving by the facility with a receiver. While this application is safer and more efficient than sending a person into a house to read the meter, it is far from ideal: The meters are not being watched in real-time; the readings are limited by the number of readers employed by the utility, and the readings are often inaccurate and infrequent.

Another problem with AMR to date has been that each vendor’s system is proprietary: Once you sign up with a vendor, you’re locked in for a long time, as much as 20 years, which is the estimated life cycle for battery-powered readers for gas and electric meters.

“Utilities have been reluctant to lock into proprietary systems, primarily because of the cost of exit,” says John Kelly, an energy consultant based in Monument, Colo. “You have to think hard and fast: If the technology changes, or the regulatory environment changes, what will it cost to change out this system? And it’s a nightmare. You essentially have to go out to every meter and every customer.”

In the past few years, companies such as Cellnet Technology Inc. have brought more sophisticated networking technology to AMR: However, the networks have remained proprietary. More than that, they’ve been installed for just one use: AMR and nothing else. Consequently, AMR has been relatively slow to catch on, especially for a technology that’s been around for more than two decades. Kelly estimates that overall penetration of AMR in electric utilities is about 30 percent. In gas and water it’s closer to 20 percent.

What WiFi Does

WiFi technology has the potential to fix just about every problem that has made municipalities reluctant to deploy AMR. It eliminates the need for employees to visit, walk by or drive by the house; it enables the utility to read the meter in real time, as often as it wants, and fix problems as they occur; it uses an open standard technology, potentially reducing the risks involved in deploying proprietary systems.

“That’s the beauty of AMR and WiFi,” says Kelly. “Theoretically, you can buy your meter from whoever you wanted. And then it’s just a matter of the software you have. WiFi offers the potential for the first time for utilities to by an AMR system without locking into a proprietary vendor. It puts utilities in control, instead of having to marry one vendor for 10 or 15 years.”

Of course, that’s not quite today’s reality. Even Corpus Christi is using proprietary AMR equipment from Hexagram Inc., and, in fact, is not using WiFi for every aspect of the deployment: It uses licensed spectrum to connect the meters to data collection units, which convert the analog signals to digital and then sends them over the WiFi network to central computers at City Hall.

Some of the AMR vendors, however, are moving quickly to develop non-proprietary WiFi systems that will support gear from multiple vendors. In particular, Badger Meter Inc. is taking the lead in the gas and water market; and SmartSynch is doing the same in the electric meter market.

In addition, AMR service providers and systems integrators such as Cellnet, Chevron Energy Solutions, Northrop Grumman and RedMoon Inc., are building WiFi networks and learning what it takes to run the networks successfully and build applications on top of them. Cellnet, in fact, is building the network in Madison, Wisc., without a commitment from the city to deploy an AMR application.

“We started to do this network with multiple applications in mind,” says Louis Kek, CIO of Cellnet. “It’s to inform, educate and learn more about 802.11 capabilities. It’s definitely a learning experience in terms of validating that the technology can support mission critical applications.”

Mesh equipment vendors are also hoping to use their deployments to learn more about the ways in which WiFi can advance AMR. Among the deployments mentioned in this article, Cisco’s equipment is in Madison; Tropos is in Corpus Christi; BelAir is in Toronto.

Is It Right For Your Community?

Among the critical questions facing municipalities that own water, gas and electric utilities: How much does WiFi-based AMR cost and how do you know if it’s right for your community?

The cost question is perhaps the most difficult to answer, because there are so many factors that go into it. Plus, the critical analysis is not the cost, but the overall return on investment. When Corpus Christi began its process, it hired a consulting firm, Ram Technologies, based in Philadelphia, to do a full ROI analysis.

“It’s a hugely complicated formula,” says Leonard Scott, business unit manager in the MIS department at Corpus Christi. “We looked at all cost factors, and there are hundreds: Reducing personnel, business costs, responding to customer complaints, additional costs when you get in and start touching all the meters. What do you assign as a cost to AMR, and what do you assign as a cost to infrastructure updates? We came up with a document, and it has been pretty consistent.”

Even doing all of that, measuring the costs and ROI isn’t simple.

“It has to be done on a case-by-case basis,” says Rob Pilgrim, director of business development at Tropos. “It depends on the type of topology, what are you trying to accomplish with the network, what other applications are you considering ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ police, fire, consumer access. Not to mention the size of the city.”

One piece of practical advice: If you’re thinking about ROI, do a thorough cost analysis, and it’s probably best to hire an outside expert to do it.

There are several factors that will help to determine whether WiFi-based AMR is right for your community. First of all, AMR is most beneficial to communities that own the water, gas and/or electric utilities. If you don’t have an AMR system installed, that’s also a plus factor ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ you won’t have to replace something before you’ve had a chance to maximize your investment. And, if you’re installing WiFi for other applications, such as public safety or public access, then adding AMR is absolutely something to consider.

It’s also important to understand the dynamics of the city and the people involved. As Scott points out, managing the people in his city has been more difficult than managing the technology. Henry Jones, chief technology officer at SmartSynch, says it’s important to get the electric utility involved in the process from the beginning.

“The utility has to be involved for a municipal wireless network to be successful ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ they own the light poles,” Jones says. “We had one meeting, everyone’s sitting around the table, and there’s the utility guy leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest. All he’s heard about is how he’s got to put boxes at every intersection, how he’s got to send a crew out every time there’s a storm. Then we tell him what we can deliver to him in AMR, and it completely changes his perspective. The guy literally goes from not happy to one of the leading proponents of trying to get the network to happen.”

What’s Next?

Most of the experts believe the marriage between AMR and WiFi is inevitable. How fast will it happen? It depends who you ask.

“WiFi is a technology for any size municipality,” says Dan Zandron, vice president of business development at Badger Meter. “Smaller utilities will be able to take advantage of this. We believe WiFi will be embraced very quickly, and not just for the Philadelphias and San Franciscos.”

“These guys tend to be fairly cautious,” says Pilgrim of Tropos. “They might be looking at 15 years, which is a heck of a long period for deployment. They’re slower in making decisions, but once they make the decision they move fairly quickly.”

“This is a nascent market, with an installed base of millions,” says Joel Vincent, senior manager of outdoor wireless marketing at Cisco. “That’s one of the reasons we signed up Cellnet as one of our first partners. It’s an obvious application for WiFi.”

“We have every confidence that this is going to happen, and we think it’s going to be bigger than a lot of people even hope,” says Michael Blossom, WiFi product manager at SmartSynch. “We’ll be introducing multiple WiFi products in 2007.”

“We’re seeing a ton of interest in these types of applications,” says Jim Freeze, senior vice president of marketing and alliances at BelAir.

“There’s a shift in the RFPs we’re seeing. They’re much more interested in the applications and then what kind of infrastructure do they need to support those applications.”

In the meantime, vendors and municipal officials will be keeping close tabs on some of the deployments that are starting to roll out, including:

  • Madison, where Cellnet is installing the network and hoping to eventually to do AMR.
  • Toronto, where the telco and utility are sister companies both owned by the city, and where AMR was originally cited as one of the catalysts for the building of the network. Smart Synch says it has 30 WiFi meters already up and running in commercial and industrial applications.
    Burleson, Texas, where the network is being built by Chevron Energy Solutions. Several other communities, such as Rock Hill, S.C., and Riverside, Calif., where AMR has been a stated goal.
  • And, of course, Corpus Christi, which is leading the way with 50,000 meters already running in WiFi, and less than 100,000 to go.

“We went through this process with AMR and wound up with WiFi,” says Scott. “It is a no-brainer to tell a city they need to automate their meter reading services: What may not be so apparent is that wireless data is a new infrastructure that you have to take into account when managing city employees. They can go fishing or to a basketball game and still remain connected. That’s huge.”