Route Optimization: Driving Efficiency for Utilities
by Sean Carroll
As seen on TalkingLogistics.com
Since 1889 and the advent of the AC kilowatt-hour meter, utility companies have measured their customers’ consumption rates by attaching a meter to the home or business, and by sending a meter reader to record the readings on a monthly (or quarterly) basis.
Over the next 130 years or so, several innovations would change the way meters were read, each an incremental improvement in efficiency over the previous iteration. First, handheld devices took the place of clipboards, then RF (radio frequency) meters for walk-by and eventually drive-by reads.
Big Leaps Forward
Advancements in technology are once again impacting the way meters record consumption data and share it with electricity, water, and gas providers. Known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), the current state of the technology incorporates a meter that communicates the customer’s consumption data through a network, automating the customer billing process for the utility and provides other advanced capabilities.
Here’s the catch: when utilities transition to AMI, they bump into customers who opt out of having an advanced meter attached to their home or commercial building. Those opt-outs must continue to be visited in-person in order to obtain a reading. In addition, there are areas where an investment in AMI simply doesn’t make economic sense for the utility to build out the AMI communication network (i.e., for areas of lower meter density). In these areas manual or RF meter reading would remain as the means to collect consumption data.
For these reasons and others, physical meter reading still needs to happen in order to get accurate data for billing purposes.
The Benefits of Route Optimization
In the utility world, the usage meter is at the very end of a long spectrum of steps that a utility has to take in order to earn revenue. Despite the overall sophistication of modern utilities, there is still a lack of optimal routing and dispatching of field service workers in this new, changing environment. This introduces a lot of inefficiency and retracing of steps that hurt productivity in the field.
Route optimization solutions help remove these pain points by driving that inefficiency and individual decision-making out of the meter reading and servicing process. They take over the task of balancing and sequencing routes, no matter how much your operations change from one day to the next. In one instance, a large U.S. utility was able to reduce travel mileage and overtime hours by over 30%. Another major municipal utility client was able to implement route optimization and reduce mileage by 29% and total route time by 31%.
Employees can focus on spending their time executing tasks at each location versus having to worry about how to service tens, if not hundreds, of locations in the safest, most efficient way possible.
Every Hour Counts
Utilities must ensure that every hour in the field is productive and efficient. In return for their investment in route optimization software, utilities benefit from easier operations management and the ability to balance work evenly across their workforces.
Understand that no AMI system is 100% foolproof. The utilities that cover their bases with route optimization solutions can effectively manage the three different exceptions that can rear their ugly heads anywhere and at any time: customers refuse AMIs, meters don’t send a signal, or AMI technology simply isn’t economical. By addressing these fundamental issues, route optimization platforms help utilities close the loop on an often-overlooked aspect of their operations.