Providing customers with reliable water, gas or electricity is a key tenant for all utilities. Many face the added challenge of delivering a combination of gas, water or electric services. Being a combination utility adds a layer of complexity to an already complex business.

When looking for an AMI solution, there are still some combination utilities that focus on only one area of their business. This is a problem. Reasons vary, but it’s often as simple as siloed utility departments. Teams inadvertently focus on their own daily operational tasks and don’t do a good job of communicating with their counterparts on the other side of the business. This is a common issue that plagues companies, regardless of the industry.

By working collaboratively across operational lines, utilities can find one AMI solution that services the entire utility—saving millions of dollars over purchasing separate solutions for each area. It really isn’t much of a dilemma.

Here are a few things a combination utility should think about when selecting an AMI system:

Designed for combination utilities from the beginning

AMI systems are not created equally, and the differences are not always easy to spot. Some vendors cobble together multiple legacy solutions and combine them under one software overlay headend and market it as a “new” multi-commodity solution. In actuality, the applications underneath are completely separate solutions that have quite different characteristics and capabilities. Since they were not originally designed to be in one system, each of these sub-systems often has its own support team, code base, and product life cycle. This can result in issues over time for a utility.

I believe that the better approach for utilities is to seek an AMI, or Smart Utility Network, that is designed from the ground up to support any combination of solutions – gas, water or electric from the very beginning. 

This approach offers four advantages:

  1. One AMI network designed for all endpoint types – enabling equal system support for each.
  2. Messages are all uniformly supported by the communication network.
  3. Equal encrypted message support for all endpoint types – ensuring secure communication across the network.
  4. A cohesive vendor support package with one level of care for all solutions.

Purpose-built utility communication network

Some of the communication networks marketed today were originally designed for non-utility applications. I think the best options on the market are networks that were purposely designed exclusively for utilities and their unique needs.

Here are three questions to think about:

  1. Has the current communication network version been around for a number of years, or is it new, unproven technology?
  2. Are there deployments in the field that have been successfully operated for several years?
  3. Have you asked utilities using the system if their deployments met the original business case?

Many utilities have told me that they don’t want to be first in selecting a new system due to the risk of it not working as advertised. This is a valid concern. Systems that have been in operation at utilities for years have proven themselves over time.

Two-way communication to ALL water, gas or electric meters

Many of the older walk-by, drive-by, and AMR systems were primarily used as one-way solutions. Today, full two-way systems are available that offer many more capabilities. These new functionalities expand the business cases that can be achieved—delivering more value for the system, utility and customers. Examples include pressure monitoring, remote meter switch operation, cathodic protection monitoring, and a huge uptick in data to support advanced analytics.

As combination utilities know well, it is very common for the geographic areas of different services to not align perfectly. Make sure to look into a vendor’s approach for servicing non-overlapping regions. For example, some systems are designed to bring back gas or water meter data via an electric meter. This approach can be problematic for areas where the utility does not provide the electric service. It results in service holes where water and gas communications underperform or don’t work at all. I think the better approach is to select a communication network that is able to communicate directly to water, gas and electric meters regardless of where each is installed.

Performance commitment for the life of the system

It is important to get a commitment for your AMI system’s performance. Select a solution that is highly functional now and will be for years to come. Look at a vendor’s history of supporting older endpoints and ask the question, “Are these asset types still supported on the latest and greatest system sold today to their new utility customers?”

I think it‘s also critical to have a network that offers the ability to add a vendor’s new solutions in addition to making sure that legacy endpoints are still supported. Utilities need a solution that can easily expand and grow over time as your needs and business cases change.

Wrapping it all up

Today’s AMI systems have much to offer. Picking the right one for your utility is important and will have lasting implications for your future utility growth and operational success. Here’s a blog that I wrote a few months back that talks about some of the questions you need to ask in an electric AMI RFP.

I hope you will find this feedback helpful as you move through your bid preparation process. Is there anything that I missed? If so, leave a comment, and I’ll address.