A Revolution In Metering:
Automated Meter Reading (AMR)
y John Lowrey

“There are more than 100 million electric meters in the United States measuring what is becoming an ever more expensive and essential commodity—electricity. Yet only 10 percent of the nation’s utility companies are using new “smart meters” to more efficiently measure and report electricity use..”

Many electric co-ops, however, have embraced these new high-tech meters. Based on an assessment by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) electric co-ops are leading the industry in the installation of innovative new automated meter reading (AMR) technology.

In Illinois 15 of the state’s 25 electric co-ops have installed AMR. The others are either planning to install AMR or are seriously considering it.

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Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative Information Systems Supervisor Tom Jones (left) says detailed useage data from the new automated meter reading (AMR) system will eventually be available to members online. Lou DeLaby, Manager of Operations and Maintenance, says the new meters help solve blinking light problems and help during both routine and major outages. Meters can be pinged like computers on a network in order to monitor the status of the system all along the co-op’s 1,338 miles of line..

Why should you care?

For starters you won’t have to read your meter any more. No more estimated meter readings if you forget. You won’t have one bill with 40 days of electricity usage and the next with 20 days because you forgot to read the meter at the same time of month. The meter will be read remotely from the co-op office. Meter readings will be automatically entered in the co-p’s billing system with electronic accuracy. And it is all done using the electric lines as the communications link to each meter.
With daily and even hourly reading data your co-op can help you better understand when and how you are using electricity. This is powerful information for solving high bill questions. Billing dates can be adjusted. New innovative rates are possible with AMR meters. Pre-payment options are possible for better budgeting. Connects and disconnects can be handled from the co-op office.
But wait, there’s more.

This benefit of AMR technology goes beyond a simple meter reading. This innovative technology can help cooperatives improve reliability. Voltage levels can be monitored remotely, outages can be managed more efficiently and annoying blinking light problems can be isolated and solved. It can help solve difficult problems like a bad neutral, cracked insulator or bad transformer. It can help determine if the problem is on the member’s side of the meter.

With a little ingenuity electric co-ops are using AMR technology to create new solutions and services to members.
Jim Coleman, Shelby Electric Cooperative President/CEO, says the TWACS (two-way automatic control system) AMR system from Distribution Control Systems, Inc. (DCSI) is helping the co-op provide a unique package of services to members. It includes a backup generator that can run an entire house, remote disconnect through the TWACS AMR system and a incentive for allowing the co-op to disconnect service during peak demand alerts.

More than 100 generators have already been sold. The demand shot up after the early winter ice storms knocked out power to many of the co-op’s members.

When controlled by the co-op the small generators can be combined into a virtual peaking power plant. Coleman says, “As we move into this new market, peak demand is going to be the most important component of your rate base. There is not enough base load generation out there, and the cost of peaking power is becoming more expensive.”

Obviously for the member a backup generator with automatic startup virtually guarantees they’ll never be without power no matter what Mother Nature throws at us.

There’s no such thing as a “virtual lineman” and it will always take linemen in the field to repair outage damage. With an AMR system, however, co-ops can better understand the scope of an outage and verify repairs have indeed restored power to members.

Coleman says, “The TWACS AMR system was a God send during the ice storms.”

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Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative’s Dana Smith, Director of Member and Public Relations (left), David Stuva, President/CEO and Becky Grossner, Billing/Payroll Analyst, agree that the new AMR metering system is a great tool. Stuva says, “It makes it easier to help members with high bill complaints. Now we have graphs of their hourly useage as well as past month history.”

Monroe County Electric Cooperative employees also found the AMR system helpful during the ice storm outage. “We had some server problems and we had some issues with the radio communication at times, but it still helped us pin down what services we had left to repair,” says Alan Wattles, President/CEO of the co-op.

Wattles says the AMR system is helping lower the system’s line loss by a healthy 2 percent. He adds, “It has been a great tool for high bill complaints. The graphing information you can pull out for the member shows daily usage and it has been a big help.”

Wattles hopes the co-op will be able to offer a pre-pay option next. “That is going to eliminate us having to collect a large deposit from someone with less than stellar credit. They’ll have a piece of equipment in their house that shows the dollar amount left and the kwh used, and we can send them messages. It will help them budget and we lower our risk to the co-op.”

Jerry Durflinger, Manager of Member Services for Corn Belt Energy, says the TWACS AMR system assists every department of the co-op in giving better service. For the office services department it helps expedite meter readings when a renter moves in or out, improves accuracy and eliminates estimated readings. For the engineering department it helps with system planning by providing load data, and will help with more accurate transformer and breaker sizing. For the operations department it, of course, helps with outages, but also with voltage monitoring and load management.

Integration with other new technology will only multiply the benefits of AMR, says Durflinger. “When integrated with our GPS mapping, outage software and SCADA (system control and data acquisition) we have no doubt we will have a more efficient and quicker response to outage restoration. We are also looking to the future when time-of-day rates may be needed and we are storing data from hourly reads for future analysis.”

Data from the AMR system has helped Durflinger solve high bill complaints. For example, he says, “During the summer we had an apartment complex that has very old A/C units. Some of these units malfunctioned and the result was high electric usage. Our daily and hourly TWACS summary helped them in identifying the problem and helped in explaining the problem to our members.”

Dustin Tripp, President/CEO of SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative, says the TWACS AMR system has helped find both low and high voltage problems caused by bad transformers that had never been reported by members.

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The old meter on the top is like an old adding machine. The new AMR meter on the bottom is like a computer. Using the power lines to communicate with this new meter is helping innovative co-ops provide more information on electric useage to their members, and monitor and improve the reliability of the electric grid.

Tripp says members like the new system, and employees like it as well. He says, “They have so much more information now and are better equipped to resolve billing issues and have resources to locate service problems. The system is capable of performing outage monitoring on a 24/7 basis and it can also read other utility meters such as gas or water meters.”

So why aren’t other utilities installing AMR as aggressively as electric co-ops? Tripp says the first reason is distance and member density per mile of line. Investor-owned utility (IOU) meter readers can read 300 to 500 meters a day. But co-ops have three to six meters per mile.

Mark Stallons, Vice-President/General Manager of Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association, says co-ops simply have a different service philosophy and financial requirements. “IOUs are looking at short term paybacks of three to four years. Co-ops look at the net present value payback, but we are also going to take into account the impact on the member and the quality of service we provide. If we can keep the members rates the same and provide a better quality of service then we will typically go ahead and invest in new technology like AMR.”

The most obvious change for members is not having to read their meter each month. Stallons says being able to remotely communicate with each meter using the existing power lines has proven to have many less obvious benefits. More data on the system will always provide better answers and new solutions to problems.

Although communicating a simple meter reading takes very little bandwidth, Stallons says broadband Internet service is possible using existing power lines too. He says the co-op is continuing to monitor the progress of the broadband over power line (BPL) technology, but he says the business case is impossible without a large infusion of grant money. The other risk is that the technology is changing very rapidly and competing standards have not been completely resolved.

Stallons says, “On the flip side if we don’t do it some of our members may never have high speed Internet just because of the low customer density issue.”
Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, one of the leading co-ops in the country involved in deploying wireless broadband Internet service, is also deploying TWACS AMR and keeping a close eye on BPL technology.

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As a meter reader for Corn Belt Energy, Tom Rowen used to spend three days each month, six hours each of those days, driving across rural Illinois and writing down the five digit meter readings. It was a very structured and mundane task except for the pets he came to know. Now the co-op reads its meters with an automated meter reading (AMR) system improving member privacy and employee safety.

Alan Schweighart, Manager of Operations and Engineering for the co-op, says, “AMR is the wave of the future and Illinois cooperatives are just getting ahead of the game. The advantages are so numerous to the cooperative, you wonder how you can justify not going with an AMR system?”

There are daily examples that justify AMR, says Schweighart. “One day last week we ran a voltage check on all the accounts that have a TWACs meter. Out of 7,500 meters we checked, it told us that there might be voltage problems at 18 accounts. I sent linemen to all the places and we ended up changing 15 out of the 18 transformers because of high voltage. Members never even knew that there was a problem.”

An AMR system helps accurately identify systems losses. Tim Huber, Engineering Manager for Norris Electric Cooperative, says, “We are able to verify what substations have higher losses and know exactly where to improve system performance.”

Huber says the AMR system helped solve a loose connection problem causing more than 50 momentary interruptions at one account. He also likes the help AMR provides in solving high bills.

“We have used the hourly meter reading data to determine when and how much someone was using. Usually it was a large amount of power that was used over a month ago and they do not remember what they were doing.”

More features are available each year, says Huber. “The system exceeds our expectations. Once you have the system there are more and more things you discover you can do with it.”

John Meng, President/General Manager for Clay Electric Cooperative, says the co-op began using its AMR system nearly five years ago. He says common trouble calls from members can often be solved from the office without the time or expense of sending a lineman.

“AMR will also help in the implementation of real time rate schedules, which I think will be demanded of all utilities in the future,” says Meng. Data from the system will help Clay Electric create more accurate system construction and improvement work plans.

Meng says, “This is an example of our doing more with less philosophy.”

Dennis Ivers, Director of Engineering for Tri-County Electric Cooperative, says the co-op has almost completed installation of its AMR system. “Our members are excited about not having to read their meters,” he says.

AMR is a very powerful tool, he adds. As an engineer he appreciates the blink management, outage management and voltage monitoring the system provides. Ivers says that many new automation systems will be integrated with AMR to create what some are calling the “smart grid.”

One of the small benefits of an AMR system is not having to worry about locked gates or dogs. But probably the most important benefit is energy use knowledge.

“An AMR system gives co-op members the ability to know more about their useage,” says Ed Kobeszka, Manager, Product Marketing for the St. Louis based DCSI. “Our new in-home display will help consumers make even better and more educated decisions about their lifestyle and energy use.”

The age of cheap and plentiful energy is over. At the same time the demand for 100 percent reliability is increasing. AMR is one of the cornerstone technologies co-ops are installing in order to provide uncompromising quality service for the long term.