Over the past few years, we’ve seen water and wastewater utilities increasingly recognize that they can leverage GIS to reduce fuel consumption in their fleet vehicles and more efficiently carry out their work through route optimization.
No doubt the increased interest in routing solutions for water utilities is driven by 3 factors, first that regulated water and wastewater utilities have a fixed rate structure which leads to rigid budgets. When the cost of things like fuel, water treatment chemicals, electricity, raw construction materials, etc. fluctuate than a utility has to look at its entire operations for place where cost can be reduced to keep budgets balanced.
The second factor, which arguable was the wake up call to water and wastewater utilities, was the fuel price spike around 2 years ago. When fuel prices were spiking, ESRI had an exponential rise in interested from water and wastewater utilities to optimize their routing. That interest has not subsided with the decline in gas prices. Many forward thinking utilities are using the economic pullback to prepare for when full prices do rise again in the future.
The third factor is that water utilities view themselves as stewards of the environment. The quality of our source water supplies is directly linked to the health of our environment, and many water utilities are taking proactive steps to be more environmental friendly. We’ve heard a lot of talk about the water-energy nexus recently and also about carbon footprints. Water utilities can reduce their overall energy usage (in the form of less fossil fuel usage) through fleet optimization and also can reduce their carbon footprint.
From discussions with ESRI’s water utility customers, we increasingly hear about the need to optimize vehicle routing for maintenance activities for fixed meter reading routes and for maintenance activities. For the purpose of our discussion, we’ll lump workorders, off cycle final meter reads, customer service visits, in person billing dispute resolutions and emergency routing together as ad-hoc routing.
Whatever type of routing you are using, spatially, descriptively and temporarily accurate GIS data about the location of your assets and your customer locations (premise locations in particular), are critically important. More accurate destination information will yield better routing. We’ve seen a lot of technology demonstrations for utility routing, and one thing we’ve seen lacking in many utility routing solutions is the ability to route to an asset. The ability to route to an asset is often missing when routing solutions intended for the general public are proposed to utilities. For example, if a utility crew needs to turn off valve number V-2421 during an emergency, they need to be routed right to valve itself, not the nearest property with a valid address near the valve.
For utilities, route optimization isn’t just about the fastest way to get from point A to B to C. It’s also about optimizing the sequence of how you deliver your work. Meaning that it to be truly beneficial a route optimization solution needs to be able to do things like honor time windows, handle routing and work sequencing for multiple crews some of which have specialty equipment or knowledge, allow you to add more stops and reroute all of your field vehicle on the fly and be able to leverage you existing GIS asset and customer premise locations.
Meter Reading Routing
First, let’s examine fixed routing for meter reading. If your utility currently uses meters that require either proximity (drive by meter reading) or premise visits (manual reads), you’ve most likely created a fixed set of meter reading routes. If your utility has to visit a customer premise for routing meter reads, than your meter reading route probably include a mix of vehicle route and then on foot routes (this require multimodal routing).
We often hear from utilities that want to either optimize their existing routes because they are outdated or they want to establish formal routes for the first time. From experience, we view meter reading routing as a specialty application of GIS and we suggest that you work an ESRI business partner such as Routesmart who understand how to deploy ESRI technology to overcome some of the special challenges of both drive by and manual meter reading route optimization.
I use the term “ad-hoc routing” to describe routing for maintenance activities, emergency activities, customer service and bill resolution done on the customer premise, final meter reads that are off the normal meter reading cycle and inspections. I lump these activities together into the category of ad-hoc routing because these are not rigid routes like fixed meter reading routes.
Why do I consider maintenance routing to be ad-hoc routing when some of it is planned well in advance? Because even though you plan for maintenance proactively and track that in your CMMS or workorder system, if a utility sequences the work to be done, assigns to a crew and creates a route that is often done the day before or the day of the actual work happening. Utilities often mix in proactive work with reactive work (you didn’t plan ahead to do that task) into a crews daily work, so this is really ad-hoc routing. It’s done the day of or day before doing the work and you may also need to reshuffle this on the fly based on the events of the day.
ESRI has a powerful core technology solution (of course this can also be extended by our business partners) for routing. Our core solution is ArcLogistics.
A few things to keep in mind about route optimization
We often get asked how to quantify the return on investment (ROI) for route optimization. ESRI has recently released an ArcLogistics Cost Saving Calculator that you can plug in variable from your utility to estimate the ROI for ArcLogistics – http://roi.esri.com/costsavings2009/index.cfm
If you are selecting a new workorder, CMMS or EAM system think about how this will integrate with a GIS to enable route optimization. Your workoder system is where you will create and track your proactive and reactive maintenance activities, but when you allocate crews and dispatch work route optimization will help you become more efficient.
Like geocoding, route optimization relies on an underlying dataset to use for route generation. Make sure that if you are routing, you have the appropriate dataset with the accuracy level and routing capabilities that fit the business needs of your utilities. For example some datasets for routing are able to take into left hand turn restrictions, underpass clearances and road weight limits, those can be very important factors if you are moving large or heavy equipment around.
Think about who will be generating the routes. Do they need to be automatically generated, will someone create routes in a desktop application or will many people need to create routes (for themselves or others) with a web based or mobile application? Also think about whether field crews should be empowered to route themselves, that is really a business decision at a utility. In actuality, route optimization should be available to any system or employee that needs to optimize routes. So it is really part of enterprise GIS at water utilities.
Understand how you will share routes once they are created. Do you give field crews their daily routes and sequenced work orders on paper print outs or do you have computer in the field that you can use a mobile application like the ArcGIS Mobile or ArcLogistics Navigator to push routes to and enable turn by turn navigation. When looking at a route optimization solution, you should assess how you can disseminate the routes and use them around your utility.
Feel free to comment or share any experience you’ve had with route optimization at your utility.