No water bills in the mail -- with computer dunning

Mail delivery of customer utility bills, whether for water, gas, or electricity, particularly to homeowners and apartment dwellers, is about to become folklore with the 5-cent candy bar and 35-cent-a-gallon gasoline.

A portable minicomputer carried by meter readers of the Washington Water Power Company here presents a complete bill less than a minute after a meter is read. The bill then is handed to the customer at the door, or left at the residence. Businesses generally get the computerized bills by mail.

Only a scattered few residential customers -- mostly those who aren't home daytimes -- have asked for continued mail delivery. The computerized bills are either accepted at the door or dropped through mail slots. Some of the company's customers even put up clothespins to hold the bill. Bills are never dropped into US mailboxes, which is illegal.

The successful introduction of minicomputer on-site billing by Washington Water Power here, and by the Louisiana Gas Service Company in Harvey, La., near New Orleans, has given the two utilities much greater billing accuracy; substantially reduced postage costs; lowered the overall costs of customer billing; and, most important, quickened the rate of payment by customers of their current bills.

The portable minicomputer, called Datameter, was developed by Itron Inc. of Post Falls, Idaho, a high-technology electronics manufacturer. An initial grant of $250,000 from the Spokane company provided the go-ahead funding for the project.

The Datameter now in use came out of four years of research and development at a multimillion-dollar cost, which was met by Washington Water Power and Louisiana Gas Service.

A partnership of the two utilities and Itron -- called Itron Utility Billing Associates -- is now marketing the computerized billing service to other utilities whose own computer units in place are large enough to use input from the Datameter efficiently. The computerized billing system is not sold. It is available only on a lease agreement, on a cost basis to the utility of 15 cents per bill issued.

All information put into the Datameter at the time a meter is read is later transferred into the utility's central computer as a permanent record and for future use. All information needed by meter readers to do an efficient job -- taken from the central computer -- also goes into the tapes of the Datameter for use on the meter-reading job.

On-site billing, once used years ago by utilities, was later discarded in the face of the growing complexities of modern customer accounting systems. Now, however, rising operating costs and the need to cut those costs have brought back a modernized on-site system, bringing the concept full cycle to offer major benefits today.

One of the benefits of the Datameter system is accelerated bill paying. Art Hoover, customer accounting supervisor for Washington Water Power, explained: "In the past, there had been an average eight-day lag between the time the meter was read and the time the customer got his bill. That time-lag now is completely gone."

This billing system was developed from a 1971 request by Wendell J. Satre, chief executive officer of Washington Water Power, to the Edison Electric Institute asking the trade association to look into the possibilities of computer- assisted on-site billing. The institute response was that, in 1971, the technology was not far enough advanced to pick up on Mr. Satre's suggestion.

It was in pursuit of the idea that he and the company turned to Itron, which has since found that the principles of computerized on-site billing are equally applicable to nonutility industries.

Consequently, Itron is developing and marketing such other applications as route billing systems (for use in deliveries); medical data entry systems; credit card processing systems; automated on-site long scaling systems; and, for state motor vehicle departments, automated ticketing systems.

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