Bringing HKUI into the 21st Century
Major Advances to our Billing Processes
January, 2020 - Since its formation in 1996, High Knob Utilities, Inc. (HKUI) has strived to produce and deliver the highest quality water possible using the most efficient and reliable technology available.
Our Previous System
Over the past year and a half, we have engaged in a similar effort to improve our billing system. Up through 2019, the quarterly billing process began with field technicians manually reading each of our 460 customer meters, entering the meter readings into a spreadsheet in a standard laptop computer. These readings were then brought into the office, where they were transferred manually into another spreadsheet to calcualte the billing amounts, and then the final amount is entered into QuickBooks software. The QuickBooks software was then used to generate the quarterly invoices, which were then printed out and mailed to each customer.
Needless to say, this was a very time-consuming process with numerous opportunities for data-entry errors. Research showed that advances in software and internet technology provided a path forward to much more efficient and accurate billing, primarily through the means of cloud computing. One of the key issues with QuickBooks is that it is designed to work with a wide variety of businesses, but it is not particularly well-suited to utility billing scenarios.
Choosing a Partner
After reviewing several utility billing software vendors, HKUI chose to partner with Muni-Link, which not only provides a cloud-based utility billing software solution, but also offers critical advances in electronic payment capabilities, as well as a web-based customer portal where customers can access their account information. The cloud-based nature of the software means that it is hosted on Muni-Link servers, where it is kept continually up to date.
Customers now have a wide variety of electronic payment options, and can elect to have their bills sent by email. In addition, the customer web portal enables customers to see their past bills and water usage, among other options. Customers must sign-up to access their web portal account and can do so on the portal access page.
The real advances come when HKUI completes integration of Automated Meter Reading, which enables totally accurate, electronic, hands-free meter reading, and digital transfer of the usage information into the Muni-Link billing software. The nature of our cloud-based billing software is such that as new features and improvements to the software are completed, they will be immediately available to us.
Bringing HKUI into the 21st Century
About Automated Meter Reading
May, 2020 - Physically reading water meters is a task full of difficulties. Meters can be hidden by fallen leaves, or completely blocked by snow and ice. Wet weather often means meter housings are flooded and the meter is under water, or the meter housing can be full of mud, or even have bees, hornets, or the occasional snake in residence.
Even after the meter is read, there are several steps where human error can easily creep in, and this generally results in the technician having to come back to do a second reading. All in all, it's just not a very efficient process. It's also very time consuming and can take several days, and it's subject to weather interruptions.
How It Works
With Automated Meter Reading, existing water meters are removed and replaced with AMR meters, which are equipped with RF (radio frequency) components that can provide a meter reading upon command directly to a custom laptop in the utility technician's truck. All the technician has to do is drive down the road, and the meter readings are automatically collected and recorded. Another operational advantage is that the meter can be shut off remotely, without having to physically access the meter.
Back in the office, the electronically collected meter readings are sent directly to a secure Muni-Link data server, and the invoices are generated virtually instantaneously. Depending on the customer preference, the invoices can be sent electronically by email, and the customer can log in to the customer portal and pay there, or the invoice can be sent to the customer by conventional mail.
The primary cost of this approach is obviously the new AMR meters. However, meter replacement is an ongoing effort for any water utility, as typical meters have a life span of 10-20 years. Also, as meters age, they become less accurate, generally recording less water than is actually used. Implementation of AMR aggregates these meter replacement costs into one major project, but the actual expenditure is part of normal operation.
Minor service interruptions will be experienced by customers when the old meter is shut off, removed, and replaced by a new AMR meter. Usually, this can be done in less than 45 minutes, but in some cases, unusual circumstances may result in a longer interruption. Our field technicians will notify customers prior to any scheduled interruptions.
HKUI plans to have all AMR meters installed by the end of the 3rd quarter, 2020. With our new billing software and AMR, HKUI will be operating with a state-of-the-art billing and meter reading system.