Effective route management is essential for meter reading contractors & utilities in the retail & commercial sector. The dual challenges of a) how to accurately record electric and gas usage in a timely manner based on the existing invoicing cycle days and b) how to efficiently retrieve this data, is an ongoing problem tackled in various ways since the 1970s.
The Status Quo 1975 To 2010
Until the introduction of smart meters, utilities meters had to be physically read to give an accurate indication of gas, water or electric use for residential & commercial customers. Utility companies would employ a team of meter readers to cover a different route or area every day. Creating cost-effective routes has always been a challenge that gave rise to several strategies between 1975 and 2010. These mainly focussed on depositing meter readers into the ‘middle’ of a postcode area leaving it up to the individual reader to create their own routes. Some companies utilised location analytics software to balance workloads across postcode regions but no one company deployed a GIS based high density route optimisation solution to manage this task. Despite some assumptions that smart meters will decrease the amount of physical meter reading involved, in the short term there is every indication that even more precise route planning will be needed to make them cost-effective.
Computerised Route Planning
Route planning software became a credible option in the early 90s, after geographic data was made available in a format that could be fed into computer systems. This allowed GIS (Geographic Information System) software developers to utilise algorithms developed by Operational Research teams that solved various route optimisation problems, combine them with a suitable user interface by means of graphics and interactive charts and apply this software to meter reading routes. Computer enhanced route planning became far quicker, and far more accurate, than previously used methods, with greater scope for significant cost savings in the meter reading operation.
Smart Meters & Their Implications
With old style meters consumers were passive recipients of energy and meter readers could attend a property in the knowledge that a meter reading would be required. Smart meters, however, give more control to consumers by allowing them to assess their consumption in near real time, and adjust consumption accordingly. In terms of the meter reader, smart meters also send automated digital readings to utility suppliers so no manual intervention is required and, furthermore, automated readings provide a more timely assessment of actual use in a more efficient manner at less operational cost.
For route planners, smart meters pose a challenge. The UK is currently in a transitional period, with a small but growing number of households using smart meters, and a dwindling majority relying on the old meters. By law, every household in the UK will need to be offered a smart meter by their utilities supplier before 2020 (though energy consumers are under no legal obligation to accept one). Therefore, utilities companies face a continual reassessment of meter reading routes, as customers progressively adopt smart meters, or not. The key for the route planner is to continually adjust existing meter routes in the light of a decrease in meters that need to be read, but at the same time making each route a financially viable option for the business.
In addition, smart meter adoption requires the deployment of installation teams, with their own route planning requirements. Consolidating the routes of installers and meter readers into a single cost-effective system is another key challenge faced by route planning software users over the coming two years.