The Rocky Road to A MOBILE SOLUTION
King County Energy switched from a paper-based system to an electronic data collection solution that has saved time, increased accuracy, and improved customer service.
A rural New Zealand energy-generation retailer improves service with rugged mobile technology.
Find suitable software and hardware to upgrade from paper-based meter-reading to digital data collection, in a difficult field environment.
Task-specific software from e-merge Data Solutions, paired with Nautiz X3 rugged PDAs from Handheld.
Improved data collection and accuracy, faster reporting, and enough time saved in the field to get more done in each workday – and improved customer service overall.
Compared to urban areas, rural and rugged environments present a unique challenge for utility data collectors — and yet the energy demands and quality of service for rural customers are equally important.
Knowing this is what led e-merge Data Solutions and its rural client, King Country Energy (KCE), to make the switch from a paper-based reporting system to a wireless mobile solution that has saved KCE time, increased its reporting accuracy, and ultimately improved its ability to serve customers.
We caught up with the KCE team in the heart of the King Country, one of the most rugged and isolated parts of New Zealand’s North Island, to see how this smart, community-focused company is using mobile technology to make life simpler in the midst of tough weather and terrain conditions.
A challenging fieldwork setting
Greywacke rock forms the basement of the King Country region’s hilly terrain. Its landscape features vary from dense forests to coastal sand dunes to snow-tipped mountains. KCE supplies energy for around 18,000 household and business customers in the region, in locations ranging from semi-urban to extremely rural, and is responsible for gathering regular reads on their energy meters.
According to Helen Peacock, retail business manager at KCE, a meter reader traveling to the most rural areas might drive more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) in a day. And it’s not just time on the road that’s a challenge.
“Actually getting to the meters can be quite treacherous,” Peacock says. “They can face all sorts of obstacles — farm tracks, ups and downs, swamps. We have one reader who rows a boat to read one meter on the coast.”
These challenges affect not only KCE’s employees, but also its data-collection equipment. Originally, KCE used a paper-based system to track its reads. As time passed, the team changed its system to a computer-based method with mobile devices — but the bulky devices were hard to carry over the terrain, and they had to be parked each night in docks in order to export data.
Peacock discovered e-merge and its wireless meter-reader solution, called dialog, by asking around about reading systems. She learned that it was possible to wirelessly communicate meter reads and related information back to the office within minutes.
Rugged technology confronts environmental obstacles
It wasn’t long before KCE brought e-merge on to help implement a wireless mobile solution for the company. But even this step wasn’t without growing pains — KCE quickly realized that although e-merge’s software worked beautifully, it would need to run on PDA units specifically chosen for the weather, terrain and handling they would encounter.
The first PDAs the readers used had to be kept in thick plastic cases to guard against water and dirt, which made the units difficult to operate. But removing the cases for better functionality made them vulnerable to damage. In her previous position as a meter reader, customer services associate Karen Hardisty decided to remove her unit’s case on a nice day — and she dropped and shattered the device when a dog jumped out at her on her rounds.
“The whole screen was smashed,” she recalls. “I really should have had it in the casing — but you had to get through quite a thick plastic screen in the case to get through to the buttons. You couldn’t see the screen through the window very well, and the buttons didn’t hit properly. It was a sunny day and the screen was really glary, so I thought, ‘I don’t need the case.’ Turns out I did.”
e-merge is always on the lookout for better solutions for its customers, and it decided to keep an eye out for emerging devices that might be suitable for KCE’s unique situation. The team discovered the Nautiz X3 from Handheld — a newly released rugged PDA with a compelling price point — and tested it out.
It was clear from the start that the Nautiz X3 was a great fit for KCE. The device meets U.S. military standards for holding up to drops, sand, dust and water, and it operates in temperatures ranging from -20 C to 60 C (-4 F to 140 F). It also features a sunlight-readable touchscreen, has a battery that lasts an entire work day on one charge, and is extremely compact, fitting naturally in one hand.
KCE was approaching a contract renewal with e-merge, so e-merge decided to include a hardware upgrade in its renewal offer. Then, the team sent a couple of Nautiz X3 units over for the true test: a trial run in The King Country.
“They sent us over two, and we had two of our meter readers using them. They really liked them, so we decided to roll them out to all our meter readers, because they’re faster, they’re more user-friendly, and they’re actually a handheld device rather than the big straps and cases they used to use,” Hardisty says.
These devices have proved that they’re field-ready, too — there have been no breakages, damages or even negative comments from meter readers. “It was a whole new concept for us. But it was amazing how easy and how quickly the meter readers picked it up and loved it,” Peacock says.
Paving a path toward improved customer service
KCE is enjoying the new data collection and reporting capabilities of running dialog on mobile devices. Peacock and Hardisty say that so much time has been saved with the new system that their team is able to read more meters — even their rural rounds are now being read monthly.
King County Energy switched from a paper-based system to an electronic solution that has saved time, increased accuracy, and improved customer service. “I love the reporting features. The technology amazes me,” Peacock says. “It’s significantly improving productivity and quality in the field.”
But even with all the improvements in data-collection, reporting and time savings, customer service is still the bottom line for Peacock.
“At the end of the day we are totally focused on providing the best possible service we can to our customers, and this helps us do that,” she says. “We’ve gone from the ‘paper days’ to these wireless devices, which have greatly improved our service.”