Meter Reading and Municipal Field Work Services Impacted by COVID-19
October 7, 2020

Meter reading during lockdown

Due to the serious nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa took the unprecedented step of entering into a strict lockdown during March 2020. This has meant that a number of services were suspended at this time and some hadn’t resumed operation until lockdown eased in the middle of August. One of the services suspended during the strictest levels of lockdown was meter reading, however, with the increased number of people staying at home during this period municipalities came to the conclusion that meter reading was an essential service.

A number of municipalities make use of contractors, who were simultaneously concerned about the safety of continuing their work during the uncertainty of lockdown and not resuming the work as it is on a no work no pay basis. After substantial motivation as to the safety of working outside in areas with free-flowing air and the correct use of PPE, some of the contractors continued their work as an essential service, albeit on reduced working days. An issue that added to the woes of some municipalities was the fact that some of their meter readers have actually been on suspension since before lockdown was implemented, making it almost impossible to get an accurate reading of meters for over an almost six month period.

Implications for paying citizens 

What does this mean for the average rate paying citizen? Essentially, accounts have been estimated by respective municipalities. In some cases, they may have been overestimated, and in other cases, they have been underestimated. In the event that an account has been overestimated you have been paying an overly-inflated bill on a monthly basis putting extra strain on an already likely overburdened income. If your account has been underestimated over this period you can look forward to a large bill on the corrected account when the meter reading has finally been rectified. This has been further exacerbated by the fact that many municipalities implemented an increase in the utility rates from the 1st of July 2020. Getting an inflated bill based entirely on the new tariffs due to incorrect estimations in the preceding months could be severely detrimental to most residents. This, however, is not the case for the City of Joburg as all estimations are rolled back and actual charges worked out only from the last actual reading to the current actual reading, presuming of course that both the previous and current actual readings are in fact correct.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the lockdown was a reduction in cases of vandalism, as well as infrastructure failures from external events, such as motor accidents, and other entities using the same servitudes (i.e. fibre installation breaking water pipes or disrupting electric cables). This has been beneficial in-as-much as municipalities have not required additional budget for unexpected repairs during this period.

Government gets drastic on illegal connections

As the government at least partially understood the fact that there would be financial consequences to a lockdown they also suspended other field based workflows such as credit control (delivery of pre-termination notices, disconnection and reconnection orders) until it made sense to start lifting restrictions and start cutting non-paying consumers once more.

This is not limited to only credit control operations as increased failures over lockdown at least partially due to massive amounts of illegal connections on infrastructure that cannot handle the additional load has necessitated specific targeting of some areas to remove illegal connections. City Power embarked on a massive operation in conjunction with JMPD, SAPS, and the SANDF to disconnect large parts of Alexendra which have been siphoning electricity off the national grid. It has been estimated that these illegal connections cost City Power approximately R2 billion per year and that only 4% of Alexandra residents pay for electricity. This seems like an extreme measure, but these illegal connections cause a massive strain on an already struggling power grid, leading to blackouts and mandatory load shedding, affecting consumers and businesses that are legally connected and billed.

CAT Field work solutions

Consolidated African Technologies (CAT) has implemented our RouteMaster Web Portal in many municipalities since the start of lockdown in March to enable them to still bill accurately with the readings supplied directly by the consumers. This has reduced risk to both municipal residents, as well as meter-readers as contact between people has been limited. It has also allowed municipalities to obtain meter readings where access to premises may be limited, or even refused. This also applies to other field work activities such as; audits, meter replacements, infrastructure maintenance, and support services.

Several years of industry experience ensure that CAT offers a wide range of extensive and reliable solutions for the abovementioned issues including a credit control field work solution. This system allows for the issuance of pre-termination notices, various levels of disconnection events, and prioritized re-connection by field staff once the customer has paid. CAT also offers auditing, meter replacement, infrastructure maintenance, and support services.

One way CAT can help to minimise social contact of meter readers is through our remote meter reading system (RMS) which allows for receiving and transmission of data readings from meter reader field workers remotely utilising cellular technologies such as LTE, LTE+, GPRS, 3G, HSDPA and Edge to wirelessly transmit readings back to the office once meter readings have been completed, which makes it unnecessary for field workers to return to the office.

RMA.Net is also capable of hosting a customer Web Interface whereby customers can log into the system to view reading history and print reports as well as submit readings via the web. RMA.Net has a comprehensive set of management reports which supply key performance indicators to help enhance, and thereby streamline the meter reading process.

The RMA.Net solution, which is GPS capable, can be used by the meter readers in the field. CAT can provide a handheld device to assist the meter reader in locating the correct meter. Results can be viewed within RMA showing each meter reader’s path from meter to meter and the exact location where each reading was obtained. This information is extremely useful for meter audits.

The severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that resulted from it was felt by every South African. We at Consolidated African Technologies sincerely hope that South Africa will emerge from this experience stronger and more united. We will continue to ensure that we deliver the best solutions relating to electricity metering through our industry-leading products and expertise. So that South Africa can rest assured that this important service is taken care of and is in capable hands.

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