Campus Billing and Energy Management Systems
Best Practices in Program Design and Execution
- Campus Billing Process
- Data Collection
- Data Management
- Bill Calculation
Managing the data collection, processing, and reporting for campus billing is often a manual and expensive process. The campus utilities environment is invariably complex, often with a mix of district energy, purchased power, renewables, and other utilities. Campus metering may be a mixture of real-time interval meters, manually read monthly meters, and calculated meters. Tenant calculations may be based on square footage, facility use types, or historical usage patterns. Users of this data may include facilities, accounting and finance, administration, and other end user customers. Often campus rebilling requires redundant manual processes, disparate systems and spreadsheets, and significant time to generate monthly bills. Many organizations are saving time and money by integrating and automating their existing campus billing process with applications built for campus billing. These products help to standardize and automate data collection, bill generation, bill allocation, data export, and energy management reporting. Learn the best practices around data collection and data management for campus billing and how software products can make the process faster, easier, and more reliable.
Many campuses have complex utility billing environments. This can be due to a number of factors, including: supporting multiple commodities, changing needs and requirements over time, making energy purchases and generating energy on-site, time limitations on department personnel, complicated multi-step workflows, changing reporting requirements, or limitations in data quality/availability.
To review best practices associated with Campus Billing Systems it is useful to break the process down into different stages, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The Five Stages of Utility Billing
Gathering data for multiple utility types, such as electricity, steam, chilled water, and potable water, is a difficult and time-consuming task. A large campus may have a number of different data collection methods (e.g. visual meter readings, automated meter readings, import from building control systems) with data measured at varying time intervals (e.g. monthly, daily, 15-minute) and with varying degrees of automation. Optimizing the data collection process can save time and effort, improve data quality, and increase the reliability of the billing process.
Optimizing Data Collection
The goal of optimizing data collection is to balance data requirements, reliability, and cost in order to satisfy minimum campus billing requirements and maximize other system benefits.
The first step in data collection is to create a complete inventory of existing requirements and infrastructure. This should include all data sources: metered usage, calculated usage, and estimated usage. Then the inventory is used to identify gaps and generate cost estimates for updating metering or data collection equipment. Often, significant improvements can be made with existing infrastructure and the use of a modern Campus Billing System.
Figure 2 illustrates some of the more common methods of collecting data. The left side of the graphic illustrates the source of usage data and the communication protocol needed to support that data source. The Campus Billing System is shown on the right side with the software system requirement needed for supporting that data source. The middle of the graphic shows any additional hardware/software needed for end-to-end communication. This additional hardware/software is typically provided by a 3rd party vendor.
Figure 2: Methods of Data Collection
Campuses usually deploy multiple data collection methods because of the different data requirements that make up campus billing. Higher cost data collection methods should be considered where they bring greater benefits in terms of effort or accuracy or drive improved campus billing processes. Consider the following when determining the most effective data collection method for a data source:
- What type of meter or system is the data source?
- Do you require monthly usage or interval data?
- What modes of communication are available?
When reviewing the capabilities of the Campus Billing System it is very important to understand the extent and limitation of interface support. All required data sources must be supported by the Campus Billing System and automated to the extent possible. It would be desired that data sources that may be used in the future are also be supported by the Campus Billing System.
Data management first requires the storage, organization, and management of the metadata necessary for making the meter data usable. Typically, energy usage information and associated data that impact energy usage reside in different forms in different systems. The data management strategy of campus billing will reduce the effort of gathering, manipulating and reporting data by creating a single system of record for energy related data. It should include all energy management, facility management, and utility management capabilities that are part of the campus billing landscape and ensure that they are accessible and auditable.
Once the Campus Billing System infrastructure is in place then ongoing data can be processed and stored appropriately. Since the accuracy of collected usage data is critical, data validation tools must be part of the data workflow and the process should be automated to the extent possible.
Optimizing Data Management
The technical requirements of data management should be driven by the functional requirements of the campus. For example, organizing data hierarchically makes it possible to sort, aggregate and control access to usage data. The general functional requirements of a billing system, such as unit conversion and tariff rates, are driven by the complexities of data structures, data validation, and managing utility information.
Most campus billing environments require at least two distinct views of usage and cost information to meet reporting and analysis requirements. When implementing a solution for billing, the system should enable at least the views of data by physical hierarchy and data by financial hierarchy. This should be easily administered and not require the burden of double entry.
Figure 3: Physical and Financial Hierarchies
The physical view (or the “cost view”) is typically structured in a hierarchy that includes meters or data points at the bottom level, rolling up into buildings, then possibly geographical areas or other levels. The additional levels that are important to the campus should be included for improved navigation and reporting capabilities.
This hierarchy supports splitting usage at one level of the hierarchy into virtual meters at a lower level. For example, usage at a main meter for one building may be split into usage at virtual meters for individual floors or sections of the building.
The account view (or the “revenue view”) represents the tenant accounts and accounting structure which receive bills. This hierarchy is typically different from the physical hierarchy and may incorporates levels such as Accounts, Cost Centers, Departments and Companies. As with the physical view, the additional levels that are important to the campus should be included in the structure. Multiple methods for associating accounting codes must also be supported to streamline system administration and provide necessary reporting.
To ensure the accuracy and completeness of incoming data each input stream should undergo automated validation. The type of validation will be different for different data types:
Validation, editing and estimation (VEE) tools can be used to identify gaps, spikes or other anomalies in the incoming data. Industry-standard routines are then used to fill gaps or correct anomalies in the data.
Manual reads should be validated to identify meter reading or data entry errors. If the manual reads are performed with handheld meter reading devices then consistency checks are usually programmed into the devices from the master system of record (the Campus Billing System). If the manual reads are performed by hand then checks such as: missed readings, large changes in usage, consecutive identical readings, and abnormally high or low usage should be performed by the Campus Billing System.
Purchased power that is being rebilled to tenants is often rebilled from the incoming utility bills. The Campus Billing System should be capable of performing checks on these bills as they enter the system to catch data entry or other significant errors. Checks should vary in sophistication from entry validation to bill recalculation and line item analysis. It’s important that the Campus Billing System have enough validation capabilities to meet current and future needs.
Effectively managing utility information presents a number of challenges. Data comes from different sources and is collected in varying time intervals at different times. Usage is counted in different units of measure, sometimes within the same commodity. The Campus Billing System should automatically accommodate for the following:
Multiple units of measure
The Campus Billing System should have the ability to convert utility usage to default units and common units so that energy usage can be reported and billed clearly without the complication of converting units before entering them.
Managing multiple calendars
When multiple calendars are needed by different stakeholders then this feature must be supported by the Campus Billing System. Data for all calendars should always be available in billing periods (matching the bill) and in fiscal periods (prorated to the fiscal month).
Different meters have different multipliers for converting readings to units of billable usage. Meter multipliers should be stored in the Campus Billing System as the system of record for utility billing data.
Handheld Meter Reading Software
Most handheld meter reading software products require an external system of record to program handheld devices. These will include data elements such as: Route, Sequence, Meter Location, etc., and details will be different for different handheld software products. It is important that the Campus Billing System can support this flexible feature if handhelds are used or will be used in the future.
Generating accurate bills in a timely manner depends on the ability of the Campus Billing System to consistently collect meter readings and interval data, calculate rates, and automate as much of the process as possible.
For utilities generated on-site, costs are often calculated annually and then the rates are also adjusted annually. Often times, tenants are charged for utility consumption based on average costs or are charged fees completely independent of actual consumption. This can lead to under-recovery of costs and is a disincentive to conservation. The process may even depend upon one or two key individuals, making it time-consuming and risky to the organization.
Increasing billing accuracy and timeliness can reduce the time and resources required to investigate customer complaints and issue corrected bills, reduce the maintenance risk of the Campus Billing System, and provide an audit trail of billing activity.
The best way to drive accountability is for calculated bills to reflect the costs that are incurred and avoid flat fees or estimated bills.
Incoming bills for utilities purchased from outside providers should be either split fairly among tenants (referred to as allocation-based billing) or should mirror the exact rate structure used by the outside utility provider (referred to as rates-based billing), or should use a combination of the two methods.
Allocation-based billing can be performed in a number of ways and it’s important that the Campus Billing System support the necessary methods as well as support any methods that will be needed in the future. Typical methods used include: percentage based allocation, sqft based allocation, or use weights based on space type or other category of usage. As appropriate, these methods should support changes over time and effective dates on individual configuration elements.
Rates-based billing requires interval data meters as well as a utility grade billing engine able to match the utility bill within a reasonable level of tolerance (usually +/- .5%).
Using both methods together is often desirable when there is a need for an exact balance of cost and revenue and there is a significant but not complete interval data metering infrastructure in place.
In each of these methods it is important to balance the benefits and costs of different approaches with respect to the utility rate structure complexity, the number of meters, and the quantity of utility providers.
On site generation bills should be calculated to match the costs incurred in the form of rates-based billing. Some institutions calculate operating costs once annually and then adjust their rates at the end of the year. Others calculate generating costs monthly and adjust their billing rates accordingly.
It is important to be able to incorporate demand, energy, temporary fees, administrative overheads, fuel charges, debt burden and other variables that may be needed to match the generation costs.
Assessing the complexity of the tariff engine that is part of the Campus Billing System is critical to ensuring the level of detail needed for rates-based billing.
Figure 4: Commercial Rate Management System
Bill Calculation Systems
Most campus environments require flexibility in the utility billing process, because rarely is one single method of calculation used for all utilities. For example, many institutions do not have sub-metering to measure exact usage for all tenants. Many buildings are shared between multiple tenants and tenant shares may change over time and building sizes may change over time. Some entities have fixed fees for utilities as part of lease arrangements. So it is extremely important that the Campus Billing System be able to manage the different methods used for bill calculations and support the combination of methods needed for the campus.
Figure 5: Bill Calculation Methods
After generating bills it is important to pass these bills through a set of consistency checks similar to those performed on incoming utility bills. This quality control step is important to catch any issues with bad source data or issues with the allocation configuration.
Once bill calculation and verification is complete bills are available to tenants and financial systems.
Bill presentment to the tenant can be a costly and time-consuming challenge to a campus facilities department. Generating and emailing electronic statements (e.g. in a PDF document) or providing on-line access to bills creates a significant enhancement to the tenant experience.
Financial system integration also saves significant time by automating a data feed from the Campus Billing System to the A/P system. It also increases the quality of data sent to A/P since bill calculations have been managed and verified by the energy managers.
The most common approach to bill presentment is to provide tenants access to bills electronically. An automated email notification may be sent to the tenant when a new bill is posted. Online application security must ensure that tenants see only their own bills.
Figure 6: Example Simple Online Bill
Bill presentment solutions may also include communication with the financial system of record. The Campus Billing System interfaces with the financial system and instructions are automatically issued to initiate internal transfers. These instructions need to incorporate account numbers, billing dates, amounts and multiple internal accounting codes to define the required funds transfers. This automated integration significantly reduces administration expense as well as improves the quality of data.
Campus facilities departments face reporting and analysis challenges from tenants and other constituents. On-line reporting and analysis tools can provide self-service access for users to understand their billing history and provide tools for monitoring ongoing utility usage and expenditures. The billing and usage data can improve utility management, increase energy efficiency and reduce utility costs.
The Campus Billing System creates a comprehensive campus utility dataset. This data has enormous value beyond utility billing. It creates two types of data that are invaluable for advanced analysis and reporting and continuous improvement: consumption data and billing data
Accurate consumption data can provide visibility into utility consumption and demand trends by meter or by building. The following guidelines should be followed to leverage interval data for reporting and analysis needs:
- Collect interval data when available
- Store all utility data in the same enterprise system of record
- Bring in other key variables from building control systems
- Bring in weather data
- Apply a comprehensive set of energy analytics and reporting tools
- Provide distributed access to the appropriate personnel
Figure 7: Consumption Data Analysis (Interval Data)
Tenant bills represent a view of cost, consumption, and GHG footprint organized by department or cost center. Billing data can be used to identify which departments and outside tenants are using energy efficiently, which of them have opportunities for energy savings or cost avoidance, and how their performance is trending over time. The following guidelines should be followed to leverage billing data for reporting and analysis needs:
- Pro-rate utility usage into calendar months or fiscal periods
- Incorporate data on building square footage and building use type
- Incorporate weather data
- Apply a comprehensive set of energy analytics and reporting tools
- Provide access to both facilities and tenants, with appropriate security and permissions to allow tenants access only to their own data
Figure 8: Commercial Bill Data Analysis
Reporting & Analysis Features
Consumption and billing data can be used to many energy management features, such as:
Identification of opportunities for improvement
Data analysis can show rankings and efficiencies of different areas, buildings or meters, especially when grouped by different classifications and indexed by weather and other variables. Deeper analysis can lead to the identification of specific operational initiatives (e.g. re-commissioning) or retrofit projects (e.g. equipment replacement).
Track actual cost, usage, and emissions against budgets and baselines to provide immediate feedback of progress towards performance goals or mandates.
Continuous monitoring of usage can help reduce drift in performance over time or changes in operations.
Energy management and billing software packages should provide a full suite of manual and automated reports for different audiences.
Some billing software packages support custom reporting features that can provide the specific reporting and analytical capabilities that many campus billing customers require.
Every campus has its own billing processes that have evolved over time to work in their environment. However, there are often common benefits found by optimizing these billing processes.
Improved cost recovery
By monitoring costs (the purchase and production of energy) and revenue (the amounts billed to tenants) you can identify under-recovery of costs and make adjustments as appropriate.
Reduce administration costs
Many of the tasks in Campus Billing Systems are manual and time consuming. These tasks often include: meter reading, data entry, data validation, bill presentment and reporting. Many of these tasks can be streamlined or automated with a Campus Billing System. On-line access to reports also may reduce tenant inquiries and reduce time and effort resolving tenant utility issues.
Surprisingly, many institutions depend on one or two key individuals for their billing processes. Often these processes are complicated and not well-documented. A utility billing solution should allow you to formalize the billing process in a robust, scalable and documented solution.
Reduce energy and water usage and costs
Campus Billing Systems create links between consumption and cost that allow utility users to make better decisions. Providing historical benchmarks as well as peer based comparisons helps inform and drive improved energy behavior.
Improve Customer Service
Utility users across the campus are customers of the facilities departments that bill for utilities. Though tenants are often captive customers there is value in improving the level of customer service, such as bill presentment and the ability to analyze utility usage.
It is important to bring as much uniformity and consistency as possibly to campus billing processes; starting with a single system for handling multiple types of utilities (i.e. district energy, generated electricity, purchased utilities) and for multiple commodities (including electricity, gas, water, chilled water, steam, etc.).
This paper has highlighted some of the benefits of optimizing and improving campus billing processes. They include:
- Considerable reduction in the effort required to perform billing and related tasks
- Optimization of cost recovery through improved cash flow monitoring
- Reduced risk of a documented and auditable billing process
- Improved energy management campus-wide