July 2017, Vol. 244, No. 7


Bringing Gas Meters into the 21st Century

By Chris Atkins, Sensus, Raleigh, NC

Natural gas supplies nearly 34% of the energy needs in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). This number will likely rise as recent advancements in exploration and availability of shale gas and innovative drilling techniques make it an increasingly attractive energy source. As utilities seek opportunities to create jobs and reduce emissions, natural gas will play a growing role in our clean energy future.

While electric and water utilities have accelerated adoption of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology, natural gas utilities have typically relied on walk-by or drive-by automated meter reading (AMR) systems. Increasingly, however, AMI solutions are delivering value to natural gas utilities and their customers by automating operations through a combination of two-way communication networks, smart meters and other monitor and control devices.

Like electric and water, gas utilities recognize the value of building a business case for AMI. There are five key reasons they are adopting the latest technology.

Improved Data Collection 

Over the last two decades, the journey to automation for utilities has been about collecting data from the meter. Technology innovation – most notably big data and the internet of things (IoT) – has advanced data capabilities of AMI systems well beyond meter reading. Data and communications have created a smart gas infrastructure that leverages communications platforms, smart meters, new sensor technology and analytics software to monitor the health and status of a local distribution network.
Insights gained from these tools address many operational challenges such as:

  • • Monitoring corrosion protection on pipeline
  • • Understanding highs and lows of pressure monitoring
  • • Protecting and managing service connections
  • • Enhancing public safety
  • • Aiding economic development

AMI technologies offer data to improve operational efficiency, enhance customer service and improve the safety of employees and residents. This data can improve planning and strategy around all aspects of a gas distribution network.

Enhanced Safety

Safety is a top concern for gas utilities. The ability to capture real-time data makes it easier to meet state and federal requirements like Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulations while giving peace of mind to customers.

When paired with smart gas applications, an AMI system can provide access to data from the wellhead to the burnertip – including gas pressure levels and pipeline corrosion protection status – to prevent unsafe conditions. This use of data and communication systems helps further improve efficiency and safety with automated monitoring.

AMI can also improve employee safety and protection. Typically, if service personnel cannot access a gas meter, additional trips are required, leading to more safety risks and an increase in overall operational costs. Remote access minimizes the potential for on-the-job injuries from an encounter with an over-protective pet, automotive accidents and other normal perils.

Improved Customer Service

The average customer rarely thinks of their gas utility until they receive their bill or have a safety concern. AMI technology can help utilities strengthen that relationship by providing data that addresses customer complaints proactively and enables more accurate billing.

Moving away from AMR systems eliminates the need for estimated meter readings. Rather than relying on limited information to determine customer consumption patterns, AMI systems provide actual usage data on an hourly basis. This reduces the read-to-bill time and provides customers with access to detailed information about their consumption. This information reduces the likelihood of an unexpectedly high bill.

With AMI, analytics software alerts service personnel to data inconsistent with customer trends like high consumption and helps them locate and fix issues –sometimes before a customer notices. This gives utilities peace of mind, knowing they provide superior service. It eliminates inconvenience for customers having to provide access to their property or home for meter reads or disconnects.

Asset Monitoring, Protection

In the past, utilities had to physically visit each cathodic protection test point and rectifier site to manually collect voltage and current data. This is no longer the case. The AMI system allows staff to quickly send and receive daily information over a two-way communication network. The capability offers a more holistic view with immediate notification of issues as they unfold, allowing issues to be resolved proactively and effectively.

Today’s AMI systems can use a two-way communication network to transfer data from smart meters and sensors to the gas utility. The capability allows them to reduce operational costs for meter reading, cathodic protection monitoring and gathering pressure readings. These platforms minimize the risk of under-reads and issues caused by human-input error. That’s good news for customers and service departments looking to enhance accuracy.

With the precision and efficiency offered by an AMI system, gas utilities can re-allocate staff. Reducing the time it takes for drive-by meter reads, retrieving analogue pressure charts, or measuring CP voltage and current, they may decide to assign staff to activities of higher value for operations and the public. These employees can also be trained with skills for advanced roles, which typically helps increase job satisfaction.

The Best Network

When choosing a communication network, utilities have a host of options. There are several features to consider carefully to maximize the potential of smart gas infrastructure. These components include:

  • • A two-way communication network
  • • Single, private network — no competing data traffic
  • • Broadcast to communicate reliably with even hard-to-reach meters
  • • Low-data latency
  • • High security

System operations are more secure with a private communications band. Utilities are advised to leverage systems that are Achilles Communications certified, an industry-leading benchmark for secure development of the applications in the oil and gas pipeline.

Looking Ahead

Gas utilities have a significant opportunity to transition into the future. The evolution begins with a business plan based on improving operational efficiency throughout the organization, not just getting meter readings. By investing in a robust and secure communication network, connecting monitor and control devices to the network and analyzing data gathered, they can provide actionable intelligence to customers and to their operations departments.

As gas utilities learn more about the benefits of AMI solutions, the rate of adoption will continue to increase. Smart gas capabilities and solutions that turn data into business intelligence deliver benefits that drive bottom-line results.

Author: Chris Atkins is senior product marketing manager for Gas AMI at Sensus, responsible for defining and delivering AMI and AMR solutions for local gas distribution companies. He holds an engineering degree from North Carolina State University and an MBA from Duke University.

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