July 2020, Vol. 247, No. 7

Tech Notes

Building a Gas Utility for Future Prosperity

By Dan Bennett, Director Global Gas Marketing, Sensus 

Modernization is beginning to reshape the gas industry. Providers seek new technology to bolster safety, streamline operations and enhance customer service. Practices like manual meter reading and estimated billing are giving way to new advances in technology. 

Many utilities are turning to the network capabilities of advanced metering technology to improve their operations and get in front of shifting customer service needs. While remote meter monitoring and management are fundamental capabilities of these systems, there are even more applications emerging amid the industry’s evolution.

Nicor Gas, the largest natural gas distribution company in Illinois with 2.2 million customers, is one provider that has embraced new opportunities by launching a robust meter modernization program.

Case Study 

Nicor Gas has come a long way since planting roots in the abundant farmlands of northern Illinois. In the same way a good farmer always checks the weather, it’s with anticipation and an eye toward the future that this utility has grown into the largest natural gas distribution company in the state.

“We’re committed to delivering clean, safe, reliable and affordable natural gas for our customers, our neighbors and our communities,” said Sandy Garcia, director of special projects at Nicor Gas. “Investing in new programs and technologies across the Nicor Gas system is a key step toward building a state-of-the-art natural gas delivery system for northern Illinois.”

Nicor Gas’s meter modernization program began in 2018, and deployment of the advanced metering infrastructure to all customers is expected to be complete this year. 

For more than six decades, Nicor Gas meter readers have visited customers’ homes and businesses bimonthly to check actual gas usage – a large undertaking across its footprint in northern Illinois. Based on growing customer demand for real-time data, Nicor Gas launched the modernization effort. 

“We needed a solution to accelerate our data collection without sacrificing reliability,” said Gretchen Ohl, manager of advanced metering infrastructure deployment for Nicor Gas. “We made the decision to upgrade our network infrastructure and transitioned to an automated meter reading process.”

The natural gas provider selected advanced metering infrastructure from Sensus, a Xylem brand, to enhance customer service and build for future development.

Lori Reese, Nicor Gas meter reader, activates a communications module that will communicate data to and from residential and commercial natural gas meters.

Tilling the Soil

As part of an aggressive, three-year deployment, Nicor Gas began installing the two-way Sensus FlexNet communication network across its service area to lay the groundwork for advanced metering infrastructure. The deployment includes FlexNet communication modules that communicate data to and from current residential and commercial natural gas meters. 

Nicor Gas continued its fast-paced module deployment with the FlexNet EasyLink Mobile Communications solution, which allows technicians to automate data collection by obtaining meter reads using a portable, long-range radio device. 

The compact size and minimal hardware requirements to set up EasyLink helps Ohl and her team realize operational benefits. Most customers with outdoor-accessible meters do not need to be present at installation, and there is no interruption to natural gas service during the few minutes it takes to place the module onto existing meters.

As the company quickly reached a one-million-installation milestone last year, the natural gas utility began to make fundamental changes to billing processes. 

“We transitioned from billing customers with estimated reads to actual reads from real-time data,” said Ohl. “It was like going from the Stone Age to the Modern Age.”

As the utility nears a full deployment of the FlexNet communication modules later this year, the Nicor Gas team sees the power of enhanced data collection extend beyond billing.

“The automation will enhance our customer experience by helping to eliminate estimated meter reads and providing more timely and accurate data about their energy usage,” Garcia said. “The resulting analytics gives customers more control, enabling better informed energy- and cost-savings decisions.” 

The new system has also helped the utility to grow in its own efforts to become more energy-efficient and sustainable.

“We are committed to pursuing an environmentally sustainable future for our customers and communities,” Ohl said. “The ability to read meters remotely helps us simplify the process for customers moving to new properties, and it also reduces our carbon footprint with far less service vehicles on the road.” 

Nicor Gas continues to explore ways to advance this technology. Future operation-use applications like pressure monitoring and pipeline cathodic protection are being considered. 

“Our system gives us the flexibility to continue growing and reaping new rewards,” said Ohl.

Future Demands 

Nicor Gas helps showcase their successful meter modernization program without disrupting service to customers. Stable, sophisticated systems require minimal infrastructure. 

Utilities may see a clearer cause for modernization as they consider the benefits that go beyond faster meter reads and increased operational efficiency. Data and communications have opened the doors for new, integrated capabilities among meters, sensors and analytical software that allow providers to monitor the health and status of their entire distribution networks.

With the flexibility to add new applications based on their own unique needs and timeline, the latest technology offers a significant opportunity for providers to transition into the utility of tomorrow. Utilities can advance just like Nicor Gas.


Challenges like sustainability and growing customer service demands will likely increase as the natural gas industry evolves. As gas utility managers step back and consider what the future will look like, one point becomes clear – making the right investments now will yield immediate improvements and plant the seeds for strong yields in the future.

Author: Dan Bennett is the director of global gas marketing at Sensus, a Xylem brand. He has seven years of service with the smart technology company. He earned Bachelor of Science degrees in electrical engineering and computer engineering from North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

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