Towns deploy meter reading infrastructure to meet diverse needs
When my husband and I moved from a cramped apartment to a house on a large lot, we made a few important changes: We bought a gas grill for the yard, we put up a bird feeder and we started paying for our own utilities—including water.
Only when I started researching water meters did I realize that in the past eight months, I had not once reported our water meter readings, nor had I seen a meter reader in the vicinity of our house.
I questioned my husband, thinking that perhaps he had been reporting our meter readings behind my back.
“Do you have to report the reading to the town, or do they just know?” I asked.
“They just know somehow,” he replied.
Welcome to the next generation of metering infrastructure. Basic “smart” water meters can gauge a customer’s monthly water use and send it to the utility, with no meter readers or self-reporting needed. More advanced infrastructure can provide real-time, on-demand data on consumption and leaks.
My husband and I never reported our meter readings because the village where we live, Mount Prospect, Ill., recently installed Advanced Meter Reading (AMR) systems. The Mount Prospect water utility began entertaining the idea of AMR installation in 2008, when it investigated replacing the obsolete drive-by meter reading systems for its 1,200 commercial and multi-family accounts. Its discovery: the wireless infrastructure needed for the new systems also could be used to provide wireless reading of all residential customers’ meters.
At the time, Mount Prospect’s residential customers reported their own water meter readings. “The residential customer could phone in, email or fax their reading, or include it in their bimonthly invoice for finance staff to enter into the billing software. This was very time-consuming and a large percentage of customers failed to provide readings when due,” said Matt Overeem, superintendent for Mount Prospect’s Water and Sewer Division. According to Overeem, up to 40% of these meter readings were missing at any given time.
The village purchased Badger Meter’s fixed-base wireless system in late 2011. By the end of 2015, more than 11,350 meters had been installed.
“Now, in less than half an hour, a file is created with more than 11,000 timely water meter reads and provided for direct input into the water utility billing software,” Overeem said.
Making (Radio) Waves
The whole operation sounds magically high-tech, but AMR is actually dependent on a long-established technology: radio.
Each of Mount Prospect’s water meters is connected to a small, battery-powered device known as an endpoint. The endpoint reads the meter several times per day before sending a low-powered radio signal to a data collector—a computer located on a building, street light or water facility. The collector transmits these data to the village’s water meter reading computer, where software calculates water use and creates bills.
One step up from AMR is Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI. While AMR facilitates one-way communication from a meter to a meter-reading computer, AMI allows for two-way communication, enabling the utility or a customer to send a meter messages. For instance, a customer might receive data from her meter using an online portal, thereby getting a better picture of her water use.
More than 2,000 miles away from Mount Prospect, the city of San Francisco has deployed AMI to do just that.
A More Accurate Measure
At 20 years old, San Francisco’s water meters were fast nearing the end of their lifespan. The city’s water utility also was planning to switch from bimonthly to monthly billing cycles. Rather than doubling its meter reading and bill-preparing staff, the utility opted to install a hybrid AMI system using an Aclara wireless fixed network system and Elster AMCO and Neptune meters. It has since installed approximately 170,000 water meters for 96% of its water accounts.
In addition to the monetary savings, San Francisco’s AMI installation has brought with it the benefit of increased accuracy. When the utility billed customers bimonthly, it measured 100 cu ft of water (748 gal) every two months. Now, AMI systems measure 1 cu ft (7.5 gal) every hour. These hourly data enable the utility and customers to discover leaks more easily.
Shifts in the utility’s high bill allowance program provide evidence of this change. The program encourages customers to detect and repair leaks. If the customer receives a high water bill due to a leak and takes action to repair that leak, he or she might be eligible to receive a credit on the bill. After the utility installed its AMI system, it started paying less out of the program, at least in part because customers were discovering leaks sooner using an online information portal tied to the system. Twenty-three thousand customers have signed up for the portal in the two years since the city rolled it out.
Hourly and daily AMI data have already helped the utility’s customers identify and fix a malfunctioning fountain at a municipal building; a broken urinal flush valve in an office building; and leaking toilets in a 24-unit apartment building and a two-flat home. The utility plans to launch its own full-scale leak notification program using hourly data, which includes a system to send email, text and phone notifications to customers about leaks.
AMI’s accuracy also proved its worth when a catastrophic drought hit California. Though the drought was not a consideration when the San Francisco water utility began installing the first meters in 2010, AMI has since allowed it to better inform customers about how much water they are saving through “drought target lines” displayed in the online customer information portal, as well as more-detailed bills enabling customers to see incremental improvements in their water use.
“That’s where the benefits of AMI come into play, in that you can look at it every day at a higher resolution of data and you can get an idea of if you’re really saving,” said Heather Pohl, program manager for San Francisco’s water meter program. “Getting more precise data than you get when you manually read every 100 cu ft has a lot of benefit for your customers—whether you’re in a drought or not.”
AMR & AMI Abroad
While AMI offers customers more options when it comes to monitoring water use, implementing it can be costly—for instance, in larger service areas necessitating many connections, or in rural areas with few telephone poles for installing collection units.
In the U.K., AMI is only slowly gaining a foothold, with utility Thames Water beginning the first rollout of AMI technology in London earlier this year.
“I think one of the reasons why smart meters are not wide-reaching in the water industry yet is cost/value,” said Tony O’Shea, leakage and metering manager for U.K. water utility Yorkshire Water. “The average water bill is £350 a year [$462 U.S.]. The other utilities—gas and electric—are four to five times that, so the investment available for more expensive, smarter meters makes the cost/value more acceptable.”
Yorkshire Water supplies approximately 1.24 billion liters of drinking water each day to customers in northern England. When it began looking into replacing meters that required manual readings more than six years ago, “There weren’t really any ‘smart’ meters on the market that were reliable or affordable,” O’Shea said.
Yorkshire Water chose Itron as a purveyor of meters and an AMR system, allowing it to reduce its meter reading personnel and circumvent health and safety issues associated with manual reading, from “slips, trips and trapped fingers” to used syringes in water meter boxes.
The influx of data associated with AMR was also a plus: “Every time we request data, [the meter] sends the last seven months’ monthly readings, as well as the current reading,” O’Shea explained. This puts Yorkshire Water in a better position to address customers’ questions about changes in their water bills over time. The meters also send leak alarms and, if dislodged, tamper alarms.
For demanding customers, Yorkshire Water can configure the meters to do “more detailed data capture for a period following a customer query,” O’Shea said, though this capability drains the meter’s battery and, thus, the utility does not advertise it.
Over the last six years, an average of 38,456 customers per year have signed up to have a meter installed as part of Yorkshire Water’s voluntary installation program. Out of the utility’s 1.208 million meters, 1.114 of them now have AMR capabilities, and the utility plans to strive for as close as possible to 100% AMR capability in the future. O’Shea estimates that customers with meters use 15 fewer liters of water per day than customers without them.
The Future of AMR
As the examples above illustrate, utilities switching to an AMR or AMI system have a number of options to choose from, depending on the population they serve and how they might best serve it.
While its AMI system has been a boon to San Francisco, Pohl is well aware of the hurdles that stand in the way of implementation: “It’s a big project. It’s a lot to take on. It’s a lot of data to deal with. It’s a lot to deploy,” she said. “AMR is a good option for some utilities. AMI certainly made the most sense for San Francisco.
“Every utility needs to do their own business case. The technology out there isn’t one-size-fits-all,” she concluded. “They need to understand their own requirements and objectives and see what works best for them.”