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Adding renewable power to meters allows utilities to obtain more data

The scenario is all too familiar: A utility has upgraded its water management system to automatic meter reading or advanced metering infrastructure, investing millions of dollars to be able to collect data from water meters—data that can help it make informed decisions regarding water usage and conservation. Unfortunately, the only data that the utility gets back from its meters involves volume. 

Granted, utilities now have the ability to collect volume information more quickly and cheaply, but it is still just that: volume information. So they have invested all that money for mere volume. How does one manage a water system with so little information? What kind of additional data would help utilities in their continuing efforts to conserve water?

Less Water, Higher Costs

A November 2012 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study entitled “Greening EPA” stated, “With the U.S. population doubling over the past 50 years, our thirst for water tripling, and at least 36 states facing water shortages by 2013, the need to conserve water is becoming more and more critical.” Because the government recognizes the importance of responsibly managing our water resources, it is working with state and federal entities to develop water conservation requirements, including such items as water audits. Most utilities in water-restricted states require end users to conserve water through restrictions to irrigation and other high-use water events. Managing these new edicts requires more information than just volume.

Coincident with the shortage of water, the price of water is skyrocketing. Sourcing water in drought-prone areas and population increase have forced water suppliers to add significant infrastructure, such as new pipelines, new reservoirs and reclamation projects. Many water suppliers have forecast significant increases in the price of water—to the tune of 10% or more per year, for 20 years or more.  

As an example, the Upper Trinity Regional Water District in Texas plans to build a new reservoir to ensure future water for fast-growing towns in north Texas. As documented in the Texas Water Plan, the new reservoir is critical to meeting the region’s water needs and avoid a water supply crisis in the future. The estimated cost of this new reservoir is $450 million, and the largest city subscriber is questioning that cost.

One of the biggest issues for a water utility is finding and controlling leaks. Estimates range from a low of 5% to 10% water loss up to a high of 50% or more. This is water that is purified, transported and purchased with no revenue to cover these costs. Volume readings will not help a utility detect leak locations on the utility side of the meter.

The electrical industry’s meters have far surpassed those in the water industry in terms of their capability to store and transmit valuable data. A basic electric meter platform now has a remote on/off capability and read-out communications. A leading electric meter manufacturer offers utilities additional options in a residential meter that send constant voltage readings, alarms for power losses or tampering, and load readings—as often as every 15 minutes. These meters also can  provide timely quality service reports, which assist utilities in planning load usage and help avoid outages during peak periods.

Why isn’t the water industry keeping pace with other industries and gathering more information to properly manage utilities? Where is the real innovation in the water industry? Obviously, the electric industry has readily available power. What is limiting the amount of information that one can get from a water meter? Is it power—or the lack thereof?  

Today, water meter manufacturers using non-rechargeable batteries are constrained by battery life and how the power budget restricts the amount and timing of information available to the utility. The utility has major issues with replacing batteries in the field that include the time, cost and trouble to replace them. The meter’s failure to call in on a timely basis is sometimes the only indication that a battery is dead.

Renewable Power

It would seem, then, that the real issue limiting the availability of meter information is that there currently is no source of renewable power at the meter.  Non-rechargeable batteries are the standard solution for even new smart meters. What if there was another way to power a meter? What if one could harness the water flowing through the meter in the same way that a hydroelectric power plant does? Electricity is produced through a constant flow of water through the turbines of a hydroelectric plant.

It has been done. In a cooperative pilot study with Honeywell Building Solutions and Ponca City, Okla., Capstone Metering installed its IntelliH2O wireless water meters and validated intelligent meter features such as two-way communications, a remote on/off valve, water measurement accuracy and pressure reading—all supported by onboard power generation.

Assessing the Benefits

What benefits are possible with more power?  One can do all of the following:

  • Operate an on/off valve remotely. This saves the time and cost of an employee driving to a location, turning a meter on or off and then reversing that process after the issue has been resolved.
  • Gather information like pressure, temperature and chemical readings. Pressure readings can assist in determining system leaks.  Temperature readings can alert the operator to potential water loss issues. Chemical readings can alert the operator to potential water contamination. 
  • Receive alarm reporting. More power allows new real-time alarm reporting that can include tamper, backflow, freezing and high or low pressure.
  • Build intelligence into the meter, rather than into software analytics back at the office. The meter can communicate in near real-time conditions without having an operator run programs that analyze historical data.
  • Enhance communications capabilities, including cell modules in the meter. More power would allow a cell module to be installed directly in a meter, eliminating the need for a wireless or proprietary infrastructure.

Even with advances in the water meter industry, volume data continues to be the only information generated to manage a water utility. In contrast, the electric industry has vast amounts of data that allow for better management. The water meter industry, however, is constrained by the lack of a renewable power source within the meter. There is no limit to the quality and quantity of information a utility could obtain from an intelligent meter that produces its own power. 

Scott Williamson is president of Capstone Metering LLC. Williamson can be reached at scott@capstonemetering.com or 214.469.1065.

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