Automatic Water Accountability
Future for AMR systems in the water utility market looks very exciting
While not the most glitzy of the three utility sectors, water utilities provide the gift of life to millions of people each day—water. You turn on the faucet for a drink of water, take a shower, and flush the toilet; you expect each of these processes to just happen, and the water to keep on flowing.
The need for clean flowing water goes back to the beginning of time and not to far after that, the process of accounting for the use of this precious resource. Water meters, or the mechanics thereof, have been traced to biblical times to account for the use of water through various means and measurement techniques. Water meters, which are usually installed on a service line from the utility’s distribution main to the utility customer’s building, fairly record the use of water by the customer so the customer can be billed for their water use. While those measurement techniques have gone through various technological advances, including magnetics and ultrasonics, over the years, the development of Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) products has been the rage of the water utility segment over the last decade.
AMR enables the water meter reading to be read from a location away from the water meter such as a sidewalk with the data then transferred back automatically to the utility’s meter reading office.
AMR automates the meter reading process from when the meter reader had to try and visually read every meter and record the reading on a pad using pencil or possibly into an electronic handheld unit.
The main benefit from AMR for water utilities is better operating efficiency as related to the meter reading and billing process. These benefits include: eliminating estimated meter readings, and reduced costs associated with on-demand meter readings for final meter reads as well as billing disputes for incorrect meter reads.
As more AMR systems are installed, utilities are seeing more benefits to their overall operations from the meter data collected such as planning for distribution system planning and enhanced customer care services such as Internet display and electronic billing efficiencies.
AMR is not a new technology as trials began in the early 1980’s under the old AT&T monopoly with a test that used the telephone company’s communications system to read several meters over telephone lines.
The idea was that because there were telephone lines in just about every home, the use of that communications medium would be great. A few years later came the break-up of AT&T and with the fact that many water meters are located outside in meter boxes, a telephone AMR installation was a major challenge. However, the AMR concept to read water meters was proven successful, but another communications option was needed.
The solution was radio-frequency (RF). A couple of AMR RF solutions were first developed to read water meters in the early 1990’s. A water meter with an AMR RF box connected to it could be read with a compatible handheld device or with a vehicle that had the AMR RF meter reading equipment inside. This concept is called a mobile walk-by/drive-by AMR RF system.
Today, there are centralized fixed based AMR systems to read water meters that transmit the meter reading from an interface box connected at the meter back to the utility office.
Not only is radio-frequency popular with AMR for reading water meters, the RF technology is also the backbone communications media for SCADA systems that are used in some form or fashion at many water utilities today providing system controls for both water treatment and wastewater processes.
With compound annual growth at over 30% in units over the past five years and market penetration at just over 18%, the future for AMR systems in the water utility market looks very exciting.