Should FC300 users be concerned about their meter data management strategy?

With the supply of new Itron FC300s no longer available, support ending on 31 December 2021 for the hand-held unit, spare parts becoming increasingly sparse and support sometimes slow, utilities do not need to panic – there is a solution and it could be easy to implement.

Itron have announced end of support for FC300 by 2021, requiring utilities to rethink their meter data collection strategies. As FC300 replacements are introduced, they are not compatible with MVRS, so by default, MVRS may also become a non-supported software package. This could be a challenge with many utilities historically basing their meter data collection processes around Itron handhelds and MVRS.

For users of the technology, the FC300s have been rugged and reliable workhorses, enabling efficient collection of meter data. However, they also have a high cost to purchase and maintain, and are inflexible in adapting to rapidly changing technology in the utility sector.

With the end of FC300 support looming, it is an opportunity for utilities to consider the best replacement platform to support meter data collection. There are both transitional and full replacement options, that enable utilities to take a more modern approach to migrating from their FC300 fleet.

It is also an opportunity to ‘take a step back’ and re-evaluate meter data collection and management strategies with the influence that IoT is likely to have on Smart metering deployments.  Potentially with a greater range of technologies and at a lower cost, it might be prudent to see how the technology evolves and the benefits it could provide before joining the ‘bandwagon’ of mass deployments with technology that may or may not be fit for purpose. The smart meter experience hasn’t always been smooth:

Since Itron originally introduced the FC300 in 2009, hand held technologies have advanced considerably. Today, ruggedised devices are commercially available that run industry standard operating systems such as Windows Embedded Handheld. These devices are smaller, more user-friendly, offer greater flexibility while being significantly more cost effective and come with excellent support.

For utilities looking to replace MVRS, they have the opportunity to deploy new proven software which can enhance meter reading operations and become the platform that is ‘Power of Choice’ ready It can be an opportunity to change the ways ‘things have been done’ and implement new KPI focussed processes. DataCol can introduce new hand-held technology if utilities require a broader set of more modern functionality or, if FC300s are beyond economic repair.

The SevenX multi-utility (electricity, water and gas) meter data capture and management solution consists of an application running on commercially available, non-proprietary, ruggedised, IP67 compliant handheld computers communicating with SevenX, (DataCol’s meter data collection server based application) over cellular networks. It also integrates data from other transfer modes such as web, IVR and AMR. In addition, SevenX provides a single interface to the utility billing system (e.g. Gentrack, SAP, Agility) for timely, accurate and consistent billing.

More than just improving the efficiency of a meter reading field force and providing strong contract KPI performance monitoring tools, SevenX provides a platform for introducing other field force automation initiatives such as meter maintenance and new technology deployments.

Sydney Water were contemplating the exact situation that many current Itron FC300 users find themselves in with support coming to an end for a different suppliers’ product. They had a strong vision for improving outcomes for customers and their own business.

With a catchment of over 4.6 million people, consuming around 1.4 billion litres of drinking water every day, constant innovation is the key to reducing their customer servicing costs. Sydney Water decided to evaluate new strategies and technologies for collecting and processing metering data from their customers. Ultimately, they decided on combining Manual and Advanced Metering Reading (AMR) approaches and selected DataCol’s SevenX as their new meter data collection platform.

“We’ve done a lot of work on it, we understand exactly what the pros and cons are, and the case just isn’t there for an AMI roll out at this stage,” says Mirko Sramek, Customer Metering Manager of Sydney Water. “In the near future, in the next five or ten years, there is a very strong place for manual meters and a very strong place for AMR meters.”

Sydney Water successfully replaced their WAP system with SevenX and new handhelds operating Windows Embedded Handheld.

“It’s enabled us to pull in new technologies and there are some significant benefits in how the SevenX system allows us to read mixed routes with Manual and AMR meters,” says Jason Dagger, Program Manager Metering at Sydney Water. “If we weren’t able to do that it would push the case for AMI a lot better. But by being able to cost effectively read AMR allows us to defer a large capital outlay that comes with implementing AMI.”

Sydney Water were also able to leverage some additional feature sets by adopting a 21st century device in the hand of their meter reading force.

Features like being able to add notes in, ensures that customer messages and information updates are passed on to readers. “It’s a big improvement to make sure that the reader got that message,” says Mr Dagger. “It makes for much better customer service and a lot less customer calls.”

Customer service has also benefitted from photo identification of meter faults.The photo capability has reduced our need for check reads and improved the efficiency of our back-end office processes, where previously if you had a reading, you didn’t know if it was a data entry error,” says Mr Dagger. “But with a photo you don’t need a check read and that exception can be processed there and then and it’s done.” The customer can be notified and action taken immediately to remedy the problem.

In fact, meter reading costs have decreased by 20% and year on year, customer complaints have been reducing. While SevenX has been a significant tool to achieve this, the other way it has helped is in letting Sydney Water redeploy previously engaged metering staff to focus on areas of concern that SevenX has identified. The overall benefit is happier customers with greater accuracy in data collection.

Trustpower is another utility that choose to take a different route. The company, (4th largest electricity retailer in New Zealand) has more than 260,000 customers, covering in excess of 500,000 electricity meters annually and represents 12.5% of the New Zealand retail electricity.

After evaluating several vendors, including the incumbent Itron, Trustpower made what was a ‘tough decision’ to move to the SevenX meter data collection and management platform.

A real attraction was being able to use a standard hand-held computing and communication device that could collect metering data, as well being a camera, provide GPS data, an internet connection, email access and a phone. In the past Trustpower meter readers would have to travel with their legacy handheld data collection device, a camera and a phone.

Stuart Milsom, Trustpower’s Field Service Manager Retail says SevenX supports Trustpower’s focus on achieving highly efficiency meter reading without compromising customer service quality, i.e. minimising their cost-to-serve ratio but retaining good quality customer service. “Our attainment rates are 98.5% which are right up there for New Zealand. We could have a slightly lower attainment rate by cutting costs more, but the trade-off for customer service is not worth it.

“Moving to DataCol’s SevenX meter data collection system has allowed us to become even more efficient, not only in the collection of consumption data, but also in the recording of additional information that will assist us to improve our already excellent customer service.”

If you are considering a replacement FC300 solution that is proven to take costs out of the business and is Power of Choice ready, then contact DataCol, who have over 15 years of experience in this field, to schedule a discussion about your meter data management strategy, and your migration options from FC300s.

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The Internet of Things (IoT) and how it could impact the electricity industry

Despite the promise, the anticipated fall in the price of electricity is not coming to the average Australian consumer any time soon. In addition to production challenges, the industry is also trying to deal with inefficiencies in the grid. The seemingly straightforward solution proposed is a grid with smart meters everywhere, eventually leading to a nation-wide electricity Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).

The cost of implementing this plan will run into the tens of billions of dollars and is probably not going to bring the cost of electricity down. Not straight away. Not in the decade following the implementation.

The smart meter roll-out is underpinned by the best intentions of providing more frequent and up-to-date consumption information to households and helping manage the load on the grid. The costs and concerns around the project, however, give stakeholders a cause for pause, and to consider alternatives. Smart meters alone have proven to be ineffective in changing energy consumption habits.

The variety of needs and motivations behind rolling out smart meters can be met, without the upfront costs involving expensive devices and the increased ongoing operational costs of maintaining a utility owned network.

Rapid technology lifecycles are making business planning for utilities and metering providers even harder. Current strategies for AMI rollouts run the risk of getting caught in a technology cul-de-sac in a few years’ time due to the advent of newer technologies providing similar benefits, faster and cheaper.

Advances in computing power, data management and communications bandwidth make the Internet of Things (IoT) a clear and present alternative towards transforming grid resilience and efficiency. As defined by the IEEE’s IoT initiative, IoT is “A network of items – each embedded with sensors – which are connected to the internet”. Many intelligent electronic devices deployed at substations and distribution networks, coupled with a grid architecture involving applications, sensors and networking can make the existing infrastructure smarter.

The challenge is charting a path to achieve the intelligent grid vision using cost-effective strategies. Meeting this challenge requires tuning out the noise about industry disruption to identify and seize the opportunities that IoT technologies enable. To realise the full potential of IoT technologies, we need to understand how to create and capture value from information

An intelligent grid doesn’t have to be billions of dollars and decades away. Meeting the challenge requires navigating the hype about ‘smart devices’ and considering proven, smart approaches to electricity data collection and management, where the real value of the smart grid lies – for consumers, retailers and generators. The time to seize the opportunity presented by the Internet of Things is now.

To learn more about how electricity stakeholders in the Australian utilities space can find inexpensive alternatives to smart data collection, read the DataCol white paper – The Long Road to AMI.

DataCol has decades worth of experience in delivering cost-effective metering solutions and practical advice to electricity industry stakeholders around the world.

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Strongcast – a powerful partner to complement Itron’s water solutions

Strongcast setup
Strongcast has been working alongside Itron in Australia since 2011 and in that time has developed a range of ancillary products to complement Itron’s world class water solutions. Since Strongcast’s arrival, an innovative range of products has continually been introduced to the domestic metering sector that has not been seen before.

Strongcast Manifold Metering Solution Installation

Strongcast has been able to design, trial and produce such practical solutions due to a long history of plumbing works and a coherent comprehension of Utility services. Strongcast has been able to design and manufacture metering networks with the least amount of connection points, set and protect assets in ground as well as offer a robust and future proof network. The Strongcast virgin DR brass valves, fittings and manifold bases can be expected to last decades in the ground and still allow for itemised maintenance if necessary.

StrongCast Manifold Metering Solution – 25mm Polyethylene Pipe + Additional Downstream Ball Valve

Queensland Urban Utilities is one of Australia’s largest water authorities and relies heavily on manifold water meters in high populations. Strongcast’s manifold product range has been used for a number of years here and has solved many of the issues that became extremely costly for the utility. Diaphragm valves and polymer ball valves have all been banned in QUU due to the high failure rate and the consequential cost their maintenance created.

Strongcast and Itron have delivered a system that has allowed the Councils to be able to use both manifold and inline meters alike in very similar assemblies, making this versatile system ideal for both scenarios if ever desired.

Strongcast Moulded Meter Bracket

As many Utilities race towards advanced metering solutions, it must be emphasised that even the smartest meters can be hindered by poor performing ancillary components. The meter is the heart of any billing assembly, yet the neighbouring parts are just as critical to the success of this asset.

Through the DataCol and Itron partnership, Strongcast can now also enter the New Zealand metering space to offer a superior range of products. DataCol take an agnostic, multi-vendor approach, which enables them to work with multiple meter brands at utilities and councils. It gives New Zealand water utilities and councils the flexibility to use multi-meter networks, rather than replacing any current meters with vendor exclusive equipment. DataCol clients save time and money, while still producing reliable, quality results. The open technology framework of DataCol also protects their client’s investment – if another type of meter is added to the infrastructure in the future, they would still be able to read that meter-generated data using the DataCol solution.

To find out more about the benefits Strongcast, Itron and DataCol can bring to your New Zealand water utility infrastructure, give Mark from DataCol a call on 021 416 311.

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