To eliminate meter access problems and data entry errors while improving overall meter reading efficiency, many utilities are implementing Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) technology. The AMR technology enables utilities to collect meter data without having to visit the meter. Nationwide, an increasing number of electric, gas, and water utilities are installing these remote data collection technologies.

Electric utilities are also beginning to deploy AMR technology for reasons that go beyond metering and customer billing. As the energy marketplace deregulates and becomes more competitive, utilities are seeking ways to use advanced metering data throughout their distribution operations to achieve a variety of other objectives.

These are; improved demand forecasting accuracy, increased energy distribution system efficiency, delivery of new rates and services, and successful management of customer choice and retail competition in their service territories.

Utilities have a wide choice of AMR technologies and companies from which to choose. These technologies include wired and wireless data collection systems that use both public and private communication networks, including broadband and cellular.

Some AMR vendors offer products that use existing power lines to transmit collected data while others are working to develop systems that rely on satellites and other more exotic technologies that have yet to prove themselves as either practical or cost effective. The AMR industry also features meter data collection technologies to serve residential, commercial, and industrial customers equipped with more advanced solid-state electric meters.

From radio-equipped handheld terminals to vehicle-based systems to large fixed networks, these automatic meter-reading systems offer a wide range of data collection functionality at a wide range of costs. The suitability and cost-effectiveness of a particular AMR technology depends on a number of variables; the type of service territory (urban, suburban, or rural), the type of customer (residential, commercial, or industrial), and the data collection needs of a particular utility.

These needs can vary greatly.

Many utilities are deploying integrated AMR solutions that combine different collection technologies (e.g., network, mobile, and telephone), to deliver the desired level of data collection functionality for different service areas and customer segments in the most cost-effective manner.

Each of these technologies— handheld computers, mobile vehicle-based systems, wireless networks, telephone-based systems and powerline carrier—has its own set of strengths depending on a utility’s operational and strategic objectives.

Radio-Based Mobile Automatic Meter Reading
With a radio-based system, each meter is adapted with a compact, low-power transmitter/receiver that upon request, broadcasts a radio signal containing metering and tamper data.

These meters are polled by a mobile handheld terminal or vehicle-based transmitter/receiver that collects meter readings from many meters and carries the readings back to the central office. At the end of the day, the readings are loaded directly into the utility’s billing computer.

The mobile transceiver can be in a handheld terminal, or a higher-powered unit installed in a truck that is driven down streets, polling meters and recording replies. Depending on the service environment, meter density, memory capacity, and the type of meter readings collected, handheld terminals are typically capable of reading several hundred meters or more in a day.

More powerful vehicle-based units raise meter reading efficiency even further by reading thousands of meters in a single day.  Radio-based meter reading is fast, efficient, and generally reliable. Some meter installations inside metal buildings create difficulties for radio transmission but these site-related problems can often be solved by re-locating the
meter antenna.

Network Meter Reading
Radio-based fixed networks offer the most advanced data collection functionality of any wireless meter reading technology. There are many variations in the network data collection products available from different vendors.

Most wireless network meter reading systems involve installing a fixed communications network over a population of meters equipped with radio transmitters to send the data through the network to the host processor. Companies apply a variety of communications strategies for their network products that utilize private dedicated wireless networks, public networks, or some combination of the two.

Though more costly than handheld and mobile automatic meter reading systems, these networks provide electric utilities with state-of-the-art automatic meter reading functionality, including consumption reads, on-request reads, tamper reporting, time-of-use, demand metering, load profile/interval reads, virtual connect/disconnect capabilities, outage detection and restoration reporting, consumption monitoring, and aggregation capabilities.

Until now the handful of electric utilities that have deployed network meter reading systems have done so mostly on a large-scale, territory-wide basis to spread the cost of the network over a large number of meters—typically more than 100,000. However, recently several new more scalable and flexible network products have emerged that enable electric utilities to deploy advanced network meter reading technology on a more selective and cost-effective basis to serve specific meter populations or specific customer segments (such as commercial and industrial customers with advanced solid-state meters).

To reduce both implementation and ongoing operations costs, these new networks combine private, dedicated RF communication networks to gather data from designated populations of automated meters and then use public communications networks to back haul the data from local collection points to the host processor. While its penetration has been limited thus far, deployment of network meter reading and data collection technology will likely accelerate in the years to come as costs come down and the need for utilities to gather more advanced metering data increases.

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