Guest Column | November 10, 2020

Building A Bridge To Advanced Metering Infrastructure With Customer Engagement

By Ali Barsamian

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While advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) offers numerous financial and operational benefits for utilities, the case for deployment hinges on enhanced customer communication facilitated by real-time data.

Water utilities are increasingly evaluating new metering technologies to reduce non-revenue water, drive down operational costs of data collection, and gain greater visibility into meter asset health. In fact, the 2018 AWWA State of the Water Industry Report found that 41 percent of water utilities have completed or have at least started their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) implementations. From the utility’s perspective, these are all sound business reasons for making the substantial investment often required for AMI.

Utilities often tell their city councils and boards that they’re doing the project because it’s also really great for customers. But how do these investments truly help the residential customer? Are water prices reduced as a result of these utility cost reductions? Unfortunately not. Utilities must recover the cost of the hardware investment, and many districts are not generating sufficient revenue to cover their basic operational expenses, let alone enough to make long-term investments in new capital projects.

One of the other key benefits of AMI investments that utilities and meter vendors tout is an improved level of customer engagement. Real-time interval data from water meters provide greater visibility into water consumption patterns. This data stream allows utilities to identify leaks as they occur and notify customers of money-saving fixes. Not only does this save customers money by lowering their utility bills, but it also protects households from water damage.

This is a real benefit to customers. But it doesn’t end there. Real-time data allows users to track their water consumption patterns discretely. When water use information is paired with property and weather data, modern data analytic technologies are able to dynamically disaggregate these data streams and estimate household water use by category. For example, if a household learns that nearly half of its water consumption goes to outdoor irrigation, it may decide to invest in an irrigation control system or turf replacement that can yield additional savings.

Real-time data also allows consumers to track water costs on an ongoing basis. For example, billing alerts can notify water customers that they are approaching a certain cost threshold. Getting control of water expenditures helps with household budgeting and long-term planning. Also, customers who engage with their utilities are likely to register for digital communications over email and text messaging. These channels make it easier for utilities to communicate system-critical issues such as water main breaks, boil notices, or even routine maintenance schedules. This leads to fewer surprises for residents and contributes to the virtuous cycle of improved satisfaction.

So there are clearly benefits to customers from AMI investments. Improved communication and visibility start shifting the relationship from utility and ratepayer to something that approaches a partnership, one where both parties are working together for mutual benefit. This improved relationship is critical when utilities need to justify raising rates for future infrastructure investments, as an established communication channel between utilities and their customers aids in a proactive conversation.

However, while these are all valuable benefits, they can be realized only after the AMI investment is made and the implementation is completed. What about the 59 percent of utilities that haven’t yet stepped on the bridge to AMI? How can they realize the advantages of customer engagement, pave the way for better customer communication, and lay the groundwork for future investments?

It turns out that nearly all the same benefits can be had by utilities with old metering technology. While discrete interval data from smart water meters provide a more detailed view of consumption behavior, modern analytics systems can yield most of these insights from bi-monthly meter reads. And this information can be leveraged for increased customer engagement to aid in making the case for AMI or other infrastructure investments.

Think about it: Utilities can analyze consumption data and deploy direct customer communications on water use, savings opportunities, high-volume leaks, rebate and incentive programs, and other critical activity. Through these communications, customer satisfaction improves and customers are driven to use digital communication channels. This allows the utility to articulate the added benefits customers will receive from various projects and creates a path toward sustainable rate restructuring, ongoing investment, and post-deployment engagement.

In short, engagement isn’t dependent on the availability of interval data but ideally is a precursor to such investment. And the best part of all is that engagement programs are highly cost-effective, yield operational savings, and reduce the political efforts required to implement large-scale infrastructure programs.

To guide utilities across the bridge to AMI, we have developed a reliable approach:

Phase 1: Open The Digital Communication Channel

Utilities must start the conversation with customers prior to the availability of AMI data. Staff should begin capturing digital contact information at every interaction possible. Non-AMI data should be used to show consumption details, disaggregated use estimates, and saving recommendations to customers.

Phase 2: Target Customers

By capturing contact information early and often, utilities can begin to communicate proactively with customers. Analysis of customers’ data allows detailed segmentation by characteristics or geographic location to distribute relevant notifications regarding high bills, outages, or community events.

Phase 3: Communicate Personalized Information

Begin to share communications regarding AMI’s benefits with the community. Deploy a unified, meter-agnostic, customer-facing portal and encourage customers to register prior to adding interval data to their accounts. Provide timely updates on deployment schedule and expected impacts.

Phase 4: Implement AMI

Inform users ahead of time to avoid any confusion or frustration around possible interruptions or impacts on their bill. Continue to keep the benefits of this upgrade readily available at customers’ fingertips.

Phase 5: Deliver Value

As AMI meters are deployed, make interval data immediately available to customers. This allows a staged deployment that provides automated leak alerts, bill forecast notification, and usage trends compared to rate tiers to customers.

With the right meter-agnostic customer engagement and data analytics platform, utilities successfully pave the way for their major investments and build a reliable bridge to AMI, increase satisfaction, and begin reducing costs.

About The Author

Ali Barsamian, VP of Marketing at VertexOne, has worked closely with the marketing, operations, and policy teams at VertexOne and WaterSmart to advocate software solutions as a tool to address utility affordability concerns and evolving customer expectations. Ali completed the Water Education Foundation’s Water Leaders program in 2017. Prior to joining the team, she worked with cities and non-profits to manage zoning code enforcement, general plan composition, and open-space conservation. Ali received a BS in Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning with a focus on Advanced Policy Analysis from the University of California, Davis.