Paul Wenner is university engineer at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.
With 174 buildings, each using its share of water, electric, steam, chilled water, and natural gas, Miami University is a significant utility consumer. In the former utility accounting system at Miami University, utility bills were hand-processed. Record keeping in the Physical Facilities Department was sketchy at best. We had a good record of the utility totals, but very little information concerning individual building usage. The accounting system made detection of overcharging difficult, as both Physical Facilities and utility users were in the dark about how much energy was being used or wasted.
The Physical Facilities Department was also trying to get our energy conservation program going again, so when we asked questions about where we should start, we realized we did not even know where the energy was being used. If we could not account for energy use, we certainly could not attempt to save it in any rational way. It was at this point that efforts were initiated to investigate the options for tracking and recording campus utility usage.
To shed some light on the circumstances four years ago surrounding the utility billing system, consider the size of Miami University: the main residential campus with 174 buildings on more than 2,000 acres is home to about 16,000 students; two regional campuses with five major buildings each provide educational opportunities to about 5,000 commuter students. Each campus is responsible for its own budget, including utility expenses.
Most, but not all, buildings on the main campus had separate utility meters. Water and sewer service is provided by the City of Oxford while natural gas, steam, and electricity are distributed mostly through university owned and maintained distribution systems. Most buildings on the main campus are served from a main 69 kV to 4.16 kV electrical substation and three switching stations. Each of the three stations house the meters by which our electric bills are calculated. Approximately 32 outlying buildings, served directly from the local utility's power grid, have individual meters as well.
For about 500 meters, Physical Facilities received separate bills monthly from each utility company, which meant that Physical Facilities and Accounts Payable were handling a lot of paper work. The local water company was sending Physical Facilities a multi-page printout with meter and account numbers, usage, and cost for every meter on campus. We also received multiple bills from the electric and gas companies for all of their meters as well. Just to enter all this data entailed a monumental task each month.
Physical Facilities reviewed a few of the bills for accuracy, and Accounts Payable issued checks for all of these bills. Very little attention was paid to the bills' accuracy. After a cursory look at our utility accounting system, it became evident that the same information was being entered into several different computer programs by different departments. More time and energy went into entering data than checking the numbers for accuracy. Analysis of the bills and data was just not being done the way it should have been.
Physical Facilities had no way to know where all the costs were going. The monthly budget reports showed the lump sum costs per account, but we had no way to determine usage trends in any individual buildings. Many of the submeters were not working correctly, or in some cases the meters were being read incorrectly, so the data was largely useless for determining where energy conservation measures were needed most. The initial reason for wanting good utility information was to identify where utilities were being used, utility usage trends, and for utility forecasting. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of utility usage in all utility categories, we installed chilled water meters for each of the 23 buildings on the central chilled water loop system. We also installed a number of steam meters in order to get more factual information on where our utilities were being used.
Finding incorrect or inappropriate bills was not an initial motivation because we really had no idea how many problems existed. As it turned out, there were more billing and accounting issues than we imagined.
In 1995, Miami's Physical Facilities Department decided it was time to improve record keeping for the university's utility costs. The old ways of keeping track of the bills and cost allocations by hand clearly did not work and were too time consuming. We also needed to find a system that did not require redundant data entry by the various departments on campus. We looked through trade literature for names of companies that sell software to handle utilities records. One such company had a program that had been used for some time by the facilities department of a university local to us. An appointment was made to visit the company and talk to sales people and software developers about the product. During the visit we were able to get a closer look at its current software package as well as a glimpse of the next generation (not yet on the market) of that product. The new version seemed to have all the features that we needed to keep accurate records of our utilities, but the initial costs were too high, the software was not very user friendly, and the recommended week-long training was an additional cost. A visit to the local university and some frank discussions with employees who had actually used the software for several years confirmed the sales pitch, but also cautioned about the difficulty of learning to use the system and the inflexibility of the software. Considering our small budget and the fact that we had only looked at one package, we decided to continue our search.
We found another company that offered more user-friendly software with many of the features we thought we needed, but it was not tailored to a university setting. More of a one-size-fits-all type, this software had some obvious shortcomings when applied to our university accounting structure. Fortunately, we were able to work with that company to develop a fully integrated system that would be applicable to our needs while providing the company with a product that would be marketable to other universities. In exchange for our part in this development, the company sold the software to us at a considerable discount. Both parties benefited. We were able to incorporate the requirements of our accounting and budgeting departments as the software was developed.
Development of Utility Software
The university and the software company started with their basic utility accounting software. Then we determined the records needed by the Physical Facilities Department as well as the records required by the budgeting and accounting departments. Under the old system for processing a bill, each department repeated a number of data entry activities. Each department used the same information but in a different format. Therefore, each had to enter the data into their own system. We also discovered that, for internal accounting reasons, many of the bills were divided up into various accounts. As a result, the basic software program, which was not set up to handle this situation, had to be reworked to create reports that could satisfy all of our requirements.
Once the software was developed, we had to convince the accounting and budgeting departments that this program provided a more efficient way for handling bills and associated data. The departments began to accept the new utility accounting system, which they had a hand in developing, when they realized a savings of the time it took to process bills and enter data.
As we developed the utility accounting software, we also worked with the utility companies to simplify and aggregate the bills sent to the university. We were able to work with the local utility companies to combine their bills into fewer bills. The water company even agreed to send us the usage breakdown in an electronic format. We worked with the software company to develop a function to allow us to enter the water utility's digital information directly into our utility program, thus eliminating the need for manual entry.
Where We Are Now
One of the things that we realized with our data in the utility program was that we needed to recreate as much usage history as possible. Location of old bills proved to be quite an undertaking and some of the bills were never located. This data served as a benchmark for the more recent utility information. Of course we could have simplified things by just starting with the most recent information, but any long-term trends would have taken that much longer to recognize.
In the process of locating old bills and comparing them to newer, more consolidated bills, we uncovered quite a few situations where we were being charged on meters that served a building that no longer existed. No one at the university had bothered to tell the utility company that we no longer intended to use their service at those locations any longer. As a result, the utility company kept sending us bills and unfortunately, the university kept paying the bills until we found and corrected the error.
We also discovered we were being billed a sewer charge based on water usage for several locations that were served by septic tanks and had no connection to the sanitary sewer system. Likewise, we were being billed sewer charges for water going to cooling towers, even though the blowdown from the tower was directed to a storm sewer. In some cases we were able to get credit from the utility company for such charges.
After some time the accounting and budgeting departments came to realize the benefits of our new utility accounting system, which has greatly decreased the time for data entry for them and Physical Facilities. Previously accounting and Physical Facilities spend about 54 hours entering billing data each month. Now the two departments only spend about 22 hours. The redundant entry of bill information has been virtually eliminated by the new software. Most of our bills have been consolidated so that we now process only 60 bills each month compared to 494 bills under the old system. We also have found, by looking at the bills and data, where meters were needed and identified those meters not properly working.
Our original interest in developing a utility accounting program was to better identify where our money was being spent and identify certain buildings for utility conservation efforts. As shown in the graph above, we are now able to look at trends in utility usage and to determine if our conservation projects are really paying off. Our budgeting department has direct access to all the data and has found the historical information allows them to better estimate future expenditures. In Physical Facilities the same data can be effectively used for estimating new or renovated building operating costs. We can easily compare utility costs for similar buildings. We then can look into the details of those utilities that seem to be out of proportion to determine if there are valid reasons for higher than normal usage. The accompanying charts illustrate some of the different graphical outputs that are available for comparing utility usage and costs.
Since we began using the utility accounting program, we have been able to process a summary billing report (shown right) for all of the buildings on campus. We do not bill the individual academic or staff departments' budgets for the utilities they use, so our bills in those cases are for information purposes only. We alert the various users of utilities as to what it costs to operate their buildings. We hope that by knowing this information, the building occupants will be more interested in supporting our efforts to save energy and lower utility costs.
In the case of housing, dining, and auxiliary buildings, our data is actually used for payment processing. In some cases in the past, payments were prorated based on a particular building's floor area. The old method of billing certainly did not encourage energy conservation efforts. Now we are able to charge according to actual usage. We anticipate these departments will reduce their utility consumption and avoid wasteful practices since they now pay for what they use.
We are continuing to refine and add to our utility accounting capabilities. We are installing more meters and upgrading existing ones. We have also discovered some hidden benefits to the improved record keeping that has come with the new software. We are able to more accurately calculate costs for our steam and chilled water production. Since we have been able to see a truer picture of our production costs, we have investigated better ways to operate the equipment more efficiently with the goal of reducing our generation costs.
Accountability for our utility usage will become more important as deregulation of the electric market takes effect. The Ohio legislature recently passed a bill that will enable deregulation of the electric industry to begin in 2001. Other states already have experience with purchasing electricity in the unregulated market. With the use of our utility accounting software, we have a much better idea where our utilities are being used.
As we continue to improve our metering, we will be able to know our consumption patterns. This information will be needed in the future to obtain the best possible contracts in a deregulated electric market and to support the decisions necessary to continue to provide to campus customers outstanding service in the other utilities.