STEUBENVILLE - Columbia Gas customers won't have to deal with estimated billings anymore.
This week the company rolled out its new Automated Meter Reading system for 45,000 customers in its Ohio Valley operations area - Steubenville, Cadiz, Martins Ferry, East Liverpool, Bellaire, St. Clairsville and Barnesville and surrounding communities. Rather than walk the routes to do readings, the new technology allows Columbia Gas personnel to gather customer usage information simply by driving past their home or business.
If there's a glitch, the computerized system will alert them to it before they move on to another route.
READING METERS — Doug Deal, a meter reading applications support specialist with Columbia Gas, demonstrates how the company’s new Automated Meter Readers streamline the meter-reading process, eliminating estimated billings or the need to go inside the homes of customers with indoor meters.
-- Linda Harris
"It's extremely time efficient," said Dave Rau, Columbia's communications and community relations manager. "In just a few minutes we can read more meters than two or three meter readers on foot could do in a day. ... In the long run, it's going to be very cost-effective for consumers."
How much more efficient? Rau said in the old days, a meter reader walking the route could typically read somewhere around 200 to 220 meters in a working day. Crews demonstrating the new AMRs and how they work were able to surpass 1,200 readings in just about 20 minutes of driving time, and that included stoppage time when the vehicle was stopped while they explained how the system works.
"We read almost 200 meters in three or four minutes," said Doug Deal, a meter reading applications support specialist. "That's almost a full days' work for a meter reader working on foot."
"This vehicle can read many thousands of meters" in a day's time, Rau said.
Columbia spent $80 million statewide to implement the AMR system, some of which he said will be recouped through a monthly charge on customer bills. "But there's also a lot of savings that will be passed along to consumers as well," he added.
The system uses radio technology to read customer meters from a vehicle equipped with a notebook computer. As the vehicle passes by, it transmits a signal to the AMR device on the meter, which in turn transmits user data back to the computer, where it's recorded into the data bank. The meter is powered by a long-life battery supplied by Columbia.
Rau said Columbia has about 15 of the meter reading units to handle its 1.4 million customers across the state.
"We can do an actual reading every month now," he said. "In the past, we'd estimate the reading every other month and would have an actual reading in between."
All too often, he said customers complained that the estimated readings were too high, and questioned the frequency with which actual readings were being taken.
Those with indoor meters had to make arrangements for the meter reader to get inside their homes.
The AMRs, he said, eliminates those problems. "People get an actual reading every month," Rau said, so what they're billed for is what they actually used.
Rau said they started converting to the new system in 2009 in northwest Ohio. With just about 200,000 ARMs still to install, Columbia is in the final stages now of completing that task.
"Our goal is to have (everything) online by spring," he said.
Rau said in most cases, crews were able to install the AMR device without changing meters. "For most of our customers, especially if the meter was outside, it was seamless," he said.
He said the $80 million pricetag - $2 million of it in the Ohio Valley operating area - was steep, "but over time you'll certainly see a lot of cost savings."
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)