For the past several years, CPS Energy has moved to automate its meter reading technology.
The upgrade means meter readers do not have to enter a customer’s property to read the meter; instead they can drive or walk down the street and, using a handheld device, get meter information by radio signal.
These automated meters are not “smart meters,” although CPS Energy will ultimately move to that technology, which allows electronic meters to send readings wirelessly straight to the utility, negating the need to manually read meters all together. A pilot program of 40,000 smart meters has already saved CPS Energy more than $1 million in avoided costs.
The majority of meters are still read manually; roughly 30 percent are automated.
As the transition continues, CPS Energy has allowed its meter reading staff to shrink — through attrition, not layoffs — and has hired contract meter readers to fill the gap. This allows CPS Energy to avoid having to lay off any employees when automation is complete.
But not every one of CPS Energy’s roughly 1.2 million meters are read each month, either manually or through a radio device. Some bills are estimated – often because a reader cannot physically get to the meter, because of a locked gate, dogs, vegetation or bad weather.
Estimating bills is common practice in the energy industry. However, CPS Energy prefers to make actual readings, and company policy is not to estimate more than two months in a row. Of the more than 13 million meter reads that must be done annually, less than 10 percent are estimated. According to a customer service benchmarking study released in October 2012, CPS Energy estimates a smaller percentage of bills than many of its peer utilities.
To determine if a bill has been estimated or read, there will be an “R” or an “E” next to the meter reading under the heading “Meter Read Detail” at the bottom of the bill on the back. Bills are estimated by an algorithm based on prior use. That algorithm often underestimates a bill, which is then trued up once a meter is read; this can result in a higher than usual bill following an estimated bill.
Anyone concerned about a bill is urged to call CPS Energy’s Customer Service at 353-2222. Learn how to read a CPS Energy bill, how to read an analog meter, and how to read a digital meter. It’s important to note that meters work like odometers, adding usage each month, rather than a dial that resets to zero each month.
If a bill is found to be accurate, CPS Energy can work to create a payment plan. The utility understands that wide bill fluctuations can be difficult for some customers, such as those on a fixed income. One option to even out monthly bills is CPS Energy’s Budget Payment Plan, which calculates a 12-month bill average and bills that amount each month. The bill will show whether use is above or below the estimate each month. (It’s usually above in the summer and below in the winter.)
As automated meters are installed system-wide, estimated bills will become a thing of the past. Meter reading will be safer for employees, less invasive for customers, more accurate and cost effective.
Until then, CPS Energy pledges to keep estimated bills to a minimum, and will work with customers to make sure they’re accurate.