Trends in the Utility Industry

Handhelds are making the meter reader's job easer and more effective.

Typically, utility companies are large organizations with a huge, well-established infrastructure. Because of this, they tend to be slow in changing the way they do things. Yet today, after decades of steadfastly relying on pen and paper, utilities from coast to coast are rapidly adopting handheld technology to collect, store and relay data. Why now? Just ask your neighborhood meter reader.

In the bad old days, meter readers would have to go door to door, in the rain, wind, and snow, collecting information on paper pads and trying to protect them from the elements. Today, these foot soldiers of the utility industry can capture data on ruggedized handhelds by either punching in a few numbers on a keypad or connecting the handheld directly to the meter via cable or wirelessly. The same systems can send the data back to the office securely and almost instantly.

Meter reading is a primary reason the utilities industry has embraced ruggedized handhelds from companies such as Trimble (, which offers the compact Recon (a Windows Mobile 5 touchscreen device) and the larger Ranger (a two-pound WM5 device that features both alpha and numeric keypads). And nowhere is a handheld's value more evident than in the rugged terrain of America's rural areas, where some utilities have been collecting meter readings by hand for 100 years.

Today some forward-thinking utilities are implementing smart-metering systems that enable them to collect billing information and troubleshoot through an automated radio frequency network instead of going door to door. This is fine for urban and suburban areas, but problematic in the rugged backcountry, where wireless networks are hard to find and communication routes can abruptly change because of the installation of new meters or interference from, say, a truck blocking a radio path.

Taking advantage of the compact technology of a rugged handheld, a utility can send its technicians into the field in search of radio waves, enabling the company to strategically place its meters and tuners in ideal locations.

Utilities can demonstrate a dramatic return on investment by using mobile technology for meter reading

GIS, asset management and service calls

Of course, meter reading isn't the only benefit of rugged handheld computers. Foremost among three other significant values are the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and asset management.

Handheld computers allow power companies to map transmission lines, poles, substation locations, pipes, and even manhole covers. They also are used to track residential meters for more efficient quality control, and they allow electric companies to accurately charge rent to other utilities using their poles, such as telephone and cable companies.

Those are just a few reasons why Sho-Me Power, a 66 year-old rural electric cooperative with 1,600 miles of transmission lines in Missouri, is effusive in its praise for handheld computers. Sho-Me used to send hard-hat workers into the field with pen and paper to conduct legally mandated inspections of power poles and substations. Recently, they streamlined the process with six Recon handhelds.

No longer must Sho-Me's linesmen make handwritten notes (in the middle of a gusting snow storm) and then have to photocopy them all back at the office. Their new handhelds make recording and downloading the data easy. And the handheld's durability—the waterproof device meets military specifications for drops, vibrations and extreme temperatures—allows Sho-Me to conduct inspections in inclement weather.

"This system is saving us time at every step in the process," says Andy Meyers, Sho-Me's geographic information system administrator. "We're saving time in the field collecting information, and just as much time back at the office processing it. The time we save not having to collate paper is huge, and can now be spent on other, more productive work."


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