Many utilities are moving to automated meter reading systems such as drive-by and fixed base reading, but most still use handheld meter reading devices. If your utility is still using handhelds, this issue will examine some best practices for meter reading.

A common complaint of customers is, “You don’t read my meter every month.”  What you, as a manager, are faced with is determining if this is reality or perception. Technology such as automated meter reading, and even handhelds, has made “shade tree reading” more difficult to accomplish successfully. Even with handhelds, you still want to ensure that you get accurate meter readings each month and eliminate the possibility of your meter readers fabricating readings.

Adhering to the following best practices will ensure that.

Rotate routes among meter readers

If you have more than one meter reader, it’s a good idea to rotate reading routes among them. This serves multiple purposes. Your meter readers become familiar with all of your routes, which is helpful in case of absences due to vacation, sickness, or if staff turnover occurs. Rotating routes also makes it less likely that a dishonest meter reader can accurately make up a reading by remembering past usage patterns.

Read all meters every month

Do you read all meters every month, even for inactive accounts?  If your answer is, “No”, I encourage you to start now. Reading meters for inactive accounts is the best way to detect someone moving into a vacant house and using utilities without properly applying for service. For water meters, it is also a way to determine if there is a leak at a vacant property.

Don’t display previous readings in the handheld

If you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you can remember the days when meter readers carried meter books. Each account had a page in the meter book and the meter reader would write each reading in the book. Generally, each page in the meter book contained one or two years of monthly readings.

Do you remember how much the meter readers complained when you took away the meter books and made them use handhelds?  That’s because they no longer had the meter book and its wealth of information at their fingertips!

The advantage of meter books was that the meter reader had easy access to each account’s usage history. The disadvantage of meter books also was that the meter reader had easy access to each account’s usage history. Having access to an account’s past usage history made it easier for dishonest meter readers to engage in “shade tree reading”.

For the same reason, I recommend not displaying previous readings in the handheld, if that option exists. Eliminating the possibility of using the previous reading to guesstimate a meter reading is the best way to ensure that the meter reader actually reads each meter.

Set reasonable high/low limits

Do your meter readers complain that the handheld beeps at them for high and low readings all the time?  Is this really the case or do they just not want to be bothered with entering an out of range reading a second time?  If it really is the case, then you likely don’t have good high/low limits set when you export the handheld file from your billing software. Establishing high/low limits is not an exact science and it can require multiple tweaks and adjustments until you arrive at limits that catch readings that are legitimately high or low.

Seasonally adjust high/low limits

Most customers have usage patterns that vary seasonally. For water, this is usually seen in increased usage in the summer when watering lawns and gardens causes usage to increase. For electricity utilities, the pattern is often increased usage in the winter and summer when customers are heating and cooling their homes. Do you seasonally adjust your high/low parameters to mirror your customer’s usage patterns? If not, you may not be taking full advantage of using the high/low alerts generated by the meter reading devices.

Following these best practices will ensure that every meter is read each billing period. By doing this, you will have taken steps to catch out of range readings in the field, reducing the number of re-reads.  Minimizing the number of re-reads each billing period reduces costs and expedites the billing process. Also, ensuring that accurate meter readings are taken each month is critical to your utility’s credibility with your customers.