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Smart Thinking: Rubbish (and data) collection

United Utilities has become the first water company in the UK to use refuse collection and recycling vehicles to collect meter readings and receive alarm data from meters.

This techology has been installed using an innovative Automated Meter Reading (AMR) solution.  

This allows for early identification of leaks and the promotion of water efficiency messages and also has the added benefit of environmental savings through reduced vehicles on the road.

United Utilities has been installing AMR enable meters since 2010, and readings were captured by a meter reader walking past a customer’s property. This meant United Utilities was able to obtain meter readings without having to enter a customer’s property. 

As the AMR meters emit readings every 8 seconds, United Utilities wanted to develop a solution where they could obtain more frequent meter readings and therefore potentially spot any issues with a customer’s supply much sooner. 

To do this they needed a solution that would enable the collection of weekly meter readings and allow the information to be returned to the operational teams quickly.

Neil Harper, Operations Development Manager, was part of the pilot team who identified that working with the local authorities and using refuse collection vehicles, which already drove past homes on a weekly basis to collect rubbish, would provide an ideal opportunity to collect more frequent data. 

In 2014, United Utilities entered into a pilot with Warrington Borough Council and their meter reading provider, Siemens, to develop a smart gizmo that collected meter readings as the vehicles passed by customers’ homes.

It can be wired to the electrics of a vehicle so the drivers didn’t have to switch anything on, works automatically, and is hidden within the vehicle electrics so as not to cause any distraction to the vehicle operatives. They just go about their daily schedule as normal.

“When United Utilities approached us with this idea, we were more than happy to help," said David Keane, Penketh and Cuerdley Councillor and Executive Board Member for Environment and Public Protection.

"We could immediately see the benefits of two organisations working in partnership and then utilising our refuse collection fleet to collect meter readings made great sense. 

"The data loggers were fitted over a couple of weekends while we carried on with kerbside collections. 

There are also the added environmental benefits that UU doesn’t need to put extra vehicles on the roads which helps reduce carbon emissions and congestions – brilliant!”

Since the pilot in 2014, United Utilities are now in full partnership with 21 councils in the North West and have over 600 refuse collection vehicles equipped with the data logging equipment. 

They have continued with their AMR Meter exchange programme and have almost 300,000 meter reads (and growing) being received on a weekly basis, along with  ‘alarms’ being received, which allows United Utilities to be proactive in their communication with customers when identifying issues with their consumption.

United Utilities are now able to not only write to customers advising them that they have a leak or faulty appliance within their property (e.g. leaking toilet cistern), but also advise of the potential impact of the leak on their next bill. 

This is a unique service within the water industry and provides a great service to customers.

New functionality has also been implemented which allows billing agents to provide help and support to customers in relation to billing enquiries or consumption queries by using the reading and alarm data provided by the refuse vehicles and additional uses for the enriched data being received are being identified almost weekly.

"Being able to get it right from the off is a massive time saver and also prevents a lot of unnecessary contact from customers about incorrect bills," said Daniel Chesworth, Customer Advisor at United Utilities.

Customer also value the additional support we are able to provide.

Mr Connop lives in Culcheth, one of the areas included in our initial AMR trial. Thanks to the extra data we received from the bin wagons passing by to read his meter, we received notification of a leak alert.

After getting in touch to let him know he may have a leak, Mr Connop did some investigative work where it was identified that his water tank was leaking.

“I wasn’t aware I had a leak at my home until United Utilities let me know," said Mr Connop.

"I was really impressed with the service they provided. Thanks to United Utilities, I was able to get a plumber to quickly repair the problem, and keep my water bill low. Thanks to United Utilities, I’ve saved around 10% on my annual water bill."

In 2014, the pilot was shortlisted for the European Smart Metering awards, unfortunately on that occasion it didn’t win, but in October 2015 the team won the 'Best implementation of technology’ award at the North West Call Centre Awards, and in January 2016 won the ‘Rollout Innovation of the Year’ award at the 7th Annual European Smart Metering awards.

Visit the United Utilities website and find out more.

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