AMI is increasingly the “go-to” solution for urban water districts facing growing populations and increasing consumption.
By Carol Brzozowski
Urban water districts face many challenges as growing populations consume more water at a time when water restrictions are becoming more commonplace. Infrastructure is aging and is often the cause of meter-reading challenges.
In Redwood City, CA, water consumption is a major concern. Three years ago, when the city found itself suffering from a water shortage, the first step was to tackle water waste through better metering.
“They buy from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for 83,000 water customers,” explains Doug McCall, Sensus’ director of marketing for water business in North America. “They were looking at what measures they were going to have to take other than heavy rationing and penalties for overuse.”
Each of the member agencies that purchase water from San Francisco has an Individual Water Supply (ISG), a contractual amount of water that San Francisco guarantees to those agencies each year. For a number of years, Redwood City was using 12,000 acre-feet, which was 2,000 acre-feet more than its ISG.
“That was concerning for us for two reasons,” notes Justin Ezell, public works superintendent for Redwood City. “Our city is still developing. If we’re already using more than our supply assurance amount, then obviously there isn’t room for growth because we don’t have the water supply for it. Secondly, when there’s another drought, we’re going to have very heavy penalties because we’re already over our supply assurance amount. The rationing will start. For example, if we are getting 10,000 acre-feet per year of water, then we may be forced to reduce that amount by 20%.”
Redwood City officials sought ways to reduce water use.
“We implemented a water program that is saving a certain amount of potable water per year,” says Ezell. “We also implemented a series of water conservation programs. One of our most successful programs to date has been our budget-based rates program. A key component of that is the use of AMI [Advanced Metering Infrastructure] for its ability to show hourly water usage and up-to-date, timely information for our customers, in addition to leak detection.”
The Sensus AMI system with FlexNet communications “had nothing to do with efficiencies like being able to collect meter reads through our computer versus sending staff out into the field,” says Ezell. “That’s icing on the cake, but our goal was to get that information into our customers’ hands so we could help them reduce their potable water use.”
Redwood City also has developed its own water-saving program, My Water. “It’s a portal into customer water use,” says Ezell. “Each customer has their own unique login. They can go into our system, view their hourly water usage, and sign up for different alerts, like if they’re over their water budget or they have a leak.”
Previously, Redwood City had 8% in non-revenue water and has brought that number down to 3%. “We attribute a lot of that to the efficiency of the new meters we’re installing, the Sensus iPERL, which have really good accuracy,” he says. “We’re also using OMNI meters for our larger customers. With the new efficiencies we’re seeing with these meters, we’re able to now measure that use that we otherwise were not seeing, and bill for it.”
While overall water use per customer has decreased, the city’s ability to capture more lost water enables it to be sold to customers, thus generating revenue on it. By capturing hourly data from the meter, Redwood City water district officials can tell if customers are irrigating when it’s raining.
“They could also say if you’re using it, you’re going to pay more for the water that you use, and by doing that they are able to control customer water consumption habits,” says McCall. “There’s an example of an urban water utility that was able to address a shortage and offset some more extreme conditions that they had to put in place.”
The system, which was installed in 2009, saved Redwood City more than 80 million gallons of water. The city had retrofitted about 11% of its customers at the beginning of 2012 as part of a five-year plan that began in 2009.
That’s a low percentage, Ezell concedes, adding that financing the retrofit is “tough.”
“We haven’t issued any water bonds yet,” he says. “We’re simply financing it through our capital program, generating the revenue from our utility customers. We plan on issuing some loans later on into the program—we have some money set aside specifically for this. Once we run through that, we’ll start borrowing money from other funds within the city.”
McCall says AquaSense technology addresses the signal challenges many urban water districts have. Not only do urban water districts have to contend with radio signals among tall buildings, but the water is delivered from underground, “so we often find meters that are installed in vaults and in places in commercial and industrial areas where you have to unlock doors or even walk down steps to access the endpoint,” he says.
Urban water districts such as Redwood City find that by deploying data management technology, field operational costs are reduced as well as the associated overhead. There can be a learning curve in using the technology, as urban water district workers find out when they make the switch.
“You’re going from one consumption read per month, to all of a sudden getting a package of data four times a day from every endpoint, and it contains hourly readings,” points out McCall. “You’re sorting through it, picking out which reading you want during the billing cycle, and getting that into the billing system. That’s one of the first things that water utilities struggle with.”
Once the billing kinks are worked out, a utility can leverage the information as desired, McCall says. “They’ve saved all of this money. They can now bill differently based on water usage to saying they want to provide their consumers a Web portal where they can start viewing their own water usage and make decisions based on what they see of their water usage to start analyzing different consumption throughout the entire system in terms of how much water is being used. Or they may use that information for designing system tanks or determining they’ve got too big of a pump.”
Chief among the challenges faced by urban water utilities in meter reading is a high-density population resulting in many meters to read, says Brian Fiut, senior product manager for Itron. Add to that a growing public expectation of the utilities for improved customer service, enhanced automation and access to information, and ever-increasing efficiency and greener resource management.
Fiut points to “Moderate to significant urban traffic congestion; making collection of reads a slow and painful process; difficult-to-access facilities such as airports, military bases, and prisons; or even potentially dangerous neighborhoods, all of which make meter reading more difficult and inconsistent,” as further examples of the obstacles city water utilities must overcome in order to get accurate measurements on water usage.
Yet, there are benefits as well for urban water districts that allow the districts to make a smooth transition to automatic meter reading (AMR)/AMI technologies.
“Key among the benefits the utilities possess is a customer base that has continuously increasing expectations for better customer service, faster bill complaint reconciliation, reduction of greenhouse gases and the utility’s carbon footprint, better resource management, and more meaningful conservation programs,” says Fiut. “Utilities would be wise to leverage this groundswell of expectation from their customer base to see improvement in these areas and utilize it as a catalyst to implementing technologies like AMI that can assist them in realizing these expectations from their customers.”
In helping urban water districts in their quest for cost-effective water efficiency, AMI offers “unprecedented benefits across the utility enterprise,” notes Fiut. “Customer service representatives will have more access to detailed real-time data, improving their ability to spot consumption anomalies and quickly reconcile billing disputes with real-world data,” he says.
“Billing departments can conduct on-demand reads whenever customers move in or out without ever having to roll a truck to get the read, thus reducing the utility’s carbon footprint as well as increasing its efficiency,” adds Fiut.
Additionally, meter shops have access to meter data that was difficult or nearly impossible to attain, including faulty or intermittent meters, non-functioning or reverse-flowing meters, and meters that have been subject to tampering.
“Engineers and planners have a gold mine of granular detailed information collected and stored by the AMI system to use in spotting bottlenecks, detecting service issues, and accurately forecasting capital investment and future growth for their system,” says Fiut.
“Conservation officers have solid, empirical evidence whether their conservation programs are working or not,” he adds. “Most of all, customers can have real-time access to their consumption and usage patterns, thus empowering them to make their own decisions about when to consume as well as how best to conserve resources.”
One of the biggest challenges in urban environments is non-revenue water lost through a variety of factors including leaks and theft, says Fiut.
“A variety of new tools exist that will help the utility run more efficiently by detecting leaks with acoustic leak detection technology and conducting specialized differential analyses—district metering—on the detailed granular data collected and stored by the AMI system,” he says.
With fixed-network system, urban water districts can easily negate issues like population density and traffic congestion by frequently and reliably collecting detailed hourly consumption data through a network of fixed collectors permanently mounted in a strategic “grid” throughout the city, says Fiut.
“This approach, in conjunction with a mobile reading option for more rural areas—which can be easily migrated to fixed network as areas develop and become more urban—has been demonstrated as the ideal solution for urban water districts,” he adds.
Graham Symmonds, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President for Global Water in Phoenix, AZ, agrees with others that density is one of the biggest challenges facing urban water districts.
“The issue is the actual signal from the AMI meters getting up to the collector. That can be a substantial problem to deal with, because it’s really driven by frequency and construction materials,” he says.
Among the technologies that Global Water employs is the Aclara Star Network for its AMI systems, which helps address that challenge.
Troy Thompson (left) and Bo Fochetti (right) are both consumer service technicians at Sensus.
|Photo: GLOBAL WATER
Communication frequency, construction materials, and location can impact urban AMI.
Advanced water resource management involves collecting data from a variety of sources.
“Aclara has a much lower communication frequency network in the 900 megahertz,” says Symmonds. “The lower frequency signal travels through structures and buildings much better than higher frequency systems, which get attenuated in the urban environment because the signal gets absorbed rather than passing through the materials of the structures.”
Some areas serviced by Global Water can be particularly challenging because there are a lot of high-density stucco structures with masonry wire that absorbs the signal from AMI meters.
“Every house is like a little antennae that’s absorbing the signal,” says Symmonds.
Another issue related to high density in urban environments is the issue of apartment buildings that don’t have each individual residence metered. “An apartment building might only have one meter and might serve hundreds of dwelling units, so it becomes harder to get the real conservation benefits out of an AMI installation,” says Symmonds. “You still get all of the benefits of data and water loss and making sure all of your water is billed, but you can’t get necessarily get the information directly to the consumer, which makes it a little more challenging to engage the consumer in their own personal water use, which is one of the great benefits of an AMI system.”
One way to address that is to submeter each unit, although that may come at a hefty price, says Symmonds.
“I’m not sure what the solution is in those areas. You’ve got to somehow be able to bring down the usage from a master meter and I don’t think that’s necessarily possible,” he says. “An AMI in an urban environment is much more about the utility making sure they’re water efficient than giving the consumer the ability to be water efficient, so you have to continuously provide information to your consumer about how they can be conservation-oriented and very water efficient.”
One of the benefits of an urban system is that because it’s more concentrated, the equipment installation can be more efficient. “The physical proximity of each unit is easier—you can do more in less time from an installation perspective,” notes Symmonds. “From a communication collector perspective, the data collection unit will be able to service many more units in the area just because of the physical proximity of everything to the collector unit.”
Ultimately, AMI systems are applicable in many situations, Symmonds says.
“It just boils down to whether you’re trying to manage water scarcity, assure revenue, or you’re trying to get consumers directly involved in their own consumption,” he says. “If you’re trying to do any of those things, no matter if you’re urban or rural, you need to be able to get a lot more data and provide it to the consumers. You’re going to see AMI systems installed in many different scenarios for different reasons, but ultimately it’s all about conserving water.”
Target: Aging Infrastructure
Being able to monitor or determine what’s happening in an aging infrastructure is a key component of urban water systems, says Scott Williamson, CEO of Capstone Metering.
“There’s a lot of technology out there, but it’s at such a high level that you can’t get granular enough to find out exactly what your system’s doing,” he says. “The stumbling block for the industry as a whole is until you get something down to the meter level, you’ve got vast areas of unmonitored pipe.”
Capstone’s technology, the IntelliH2O wireless water meter, which features two-way communications, an on/off valve, water measurement, self-power generation, and pressure reading. In a pilot project in Ponca City, OK, Capstone demonstrated that by monitoring the pressure at the meter or customer level, “we’re able to have a better understanding of what’s happening not only on the low-pressure side—which has never been considered at a granular level—to see what all of the different measurements are, but also on the high pressure.
“We’ve had areas where a lot of times if you can reduce the pressure, you reduce your flow, thus conserving water,” says Williamson. “We have municipal districts five years ago that weren’t interested necessarily in having on/off valves or on/off controls in the meters,” continues Williamson, “but now because of the cost and the budget constraints, it’s almost a necessity to turn these meters on and off without having to drive out to every location to do it.”
In some cases, 15 to 18% per month are turned off. “In large districts, that’s a huge cost,” says Williamson. “To be able to efficiently do that to reduce their costs, it turns into a revenue stream for them.”
In Norman, OK, utility employees were driving as many as 800 miles a day to manage connects and disconnects, says Williamson.
“The carbon footprint on that is staggering when you take a large municipal district that has to drive that much just to be able to turn meters on and off,” he says.
Technology: The Cutting Edge
The technology also helps add to the water district’s revenue stream. “Most sophisticated municipal districts now realize without a good solid management program for their water systems—including having meters they can manage—they’re running into problems, or they’re going to be running into problems in the next two or three decades where their municipal district can’t grow because they can’t support it,” says Williamson.
“Without water, the municipal districts don’t exist.”
New technologies are “game changers” for municipal districts, says Williamson. “They have thought for a number of years that there hasn’t been any innovation to where it’s finally become a reality that they can manage down to the customer level,” he says. “This is one of the last industries that hasn’t fully integrated electronics. This is a neat thing for the water industry for the next two or three years.”
Cutting-edge technology is no longer a want, but a need for urban water districts, Williamson says.
“There’s an understanding if they don’t make these changes now and they can’t supply water, their town is going to dry up,” he says. “In Texas alone last year, there were two cities that ran completely dry. That’s devastating for a community. They have to be able to manage the water systems to determine what’s happening. While there’s a concern, the cost for not having the economic growth and the economic development for a municipal district is much higher than making sure the infrastructure gets upgraded to be able to manage it.”
The Key: Maintenance
Greg Land knows water technology from both the perspective of a municipal utility worker and a manufacturer’s representative. Until August 2011, he had overseen meter operations for Dallas, TX. He now works as a product manager for Master Meter’s commercial and industrial line.
Land says one of the weaknesses he sees with municipal water districts is a lack of routine maintenance programs.
“There is no such thing as a ‘forever’ meter,” he says. “A lot of times we get into the habit of dropping a meter in line and assuming it’s going to do its job until the next guy has to come around and replace it.
“Meters have a constant decline in accuracy,” he explains. “One of the challenges is helping utilities to understand that. While we’re in the business to sell water meters and make a profit, at the same time we can’t profit if they’re not.”
In visiting municipalities around the country, Land has seen utilities with what he considers ideal maintenance procedures. “It makes me happy when I visit a utility and find out they’ve been testing their meters annually or their small meters every five to seven years,” he says. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Sometimes those who don’t might not have the resources to send someone out to replace meters because the municipality is doing all it can to keep the city afloat.
Dallas has Itron AMI technology; Land says the company made a case for replacing water meters to ensure accuracy. “You replace all of your old water meters with new meters, and you’re going to see an increase in registration which will help pay for the fixed-network system,” says Land. “When we did our analysis, we found out the majority of our meters were almost five years old—that’s almost a new system.
“At the same time, there were some random meters pushing 15 to 20 years, and those meters didn’t run as well as those new ones,” adds Land.
Land says when it comes to helping municipal officials understand the benefit of a water meter, “we have to understand how these meters work from day one and how you should anticipate them to work five to 10 years from now or even longer.”
Dallas water utility workers would pull meters and test them to ascertain how they were working. “We would find that a lot of meters over 15 years old were running in the upper 80% range in the low flows and in the 96% range in medium and high flows,” says Land. “That’s lost revenue. That’s the raise for your utility worker. That’s your job whenever they have to make pay cuts.”
Land says in Dallas, meters are replaced based on an average life expectancy. “Fifteen years is the most we want to give a five-eighth- or a three-fourth-inch water meter in the ground,” he says. “Sometimes we went beyond that, and we weren’t happy about it. Sometimes we pulled them sooner than that. Anything from one- to two-inch, we typically tried to leave it no more than 10 years. For the three-inch and larger, we did annual testing on those.” New, solid-state technology, like ultrasonic, has no moving parts, and thus reduces wear altogether while extending life expectancy. The industry is rapidly adopting this technology.
In Dallas, nearly 70% of the revenue came from the commercial and industrial line, Land says.
“That’s where you want to spend as much time as you can to make sure you’re getting the revenue you deserve,” he says.
Precision accurate water measurement is where water meter manufacturers create value for water utilities, says Ian MacLeod, vice president of marketing for Master Meter.
“Water utilities want to get a hold of unaccounted for water and really gain control over every ounce of water they produce, account for it and bill for it,” he says.
Master Meter’s Octave Ultrasonic Meter, which features no moving parts and flow sensitivity starting at 1/16 GPM with its double-beam ultrasonic measurement sensors, enables synchronized reads for precise accountability and provides AMR/AMI communication with third-generation (3G) DIALOG technology.
“By having perfectly synchronized reads, an urban water district can begin to determine if they want to do district metered areas or zones to identify trouble spots, such as hidden leaks in the street,” he adds. “What we’re enabling a utility to do is instead of trying to find a needle in a haystack—which is having these guys walk neighborhood-to-neighborhood to find a leak—we can pinpoint a significant problem in a particular subdivision.
“A million gallons went into there, you measure the water flowing into a zone and yet you only bill for 800,000—where did the 200,000 go? It’s either theft, inaccurate meters, unauthorized fire hydrant use, or likely there’s some systemic leaks where pipe mains come together.”
Master Meter also can flag theft events from reverse flows, MacLeod points out. “You do your drive-by data collection and find out there is an occurrence of reverse flow. With detailed data logging down to the minute, you immediately understand what that reverse flow looks like. It’s not from a temporary backflow event. It’s been running in reverse for a week or two at a time because people go to their basements, switch their meters around in the middle of the month, and by the time they know the meter readers are coming, they reverse the meter back again. Identifying theft and backing it up with irrefutable evidence in the form of data logging is one of the ways we can help urban markets.”
Target: Water Users
Addressing water delivery and billing in densely populated urban areas such as apartment buildings presents another challenge. Submetering specific AMR systems with a Flexible Access Meter (FAM) addresses that challenge, says Land.
“Especially if you want to be able to bill accurately for each unit as opposed to an entire building,” he says. FAM can be installed vertically, horizontally, or at an angle, accommodating situations in apartment retrofits with lines that run into each apartment but may be vertical or in a cramped space.
The submetering system is not like a fixed network, which is for deployment around an entire city, but perfect for a small apartment building or a mid-sized apartment building, Land says. Land points out that more newly constructed apartments are being submetered from the beginning.
With a submeter like FAM, “you can measure individual units so you can focus on the ones who are abusing water and bill them properly for that abuse of water,” says Land. “Then you won’t overcharge the honest ones who really aren’t wasting water.”
Water conservation is greatly aided through accountability, Land points out.
“When people are being billed for what they use, that’s when they’re going to start being a little more conservative, in their usage” he says.
Another component for urban water districts to consider is a variable rate fee. The fee addresses an appropriate allocation and is punitive for allocation excess. The allocation is calculated by standard budgeting concepts with regards to number of people in the house, the type of site, its history, and outdoor irrigation factors where evapotranspiration figures into landscape irrigation, explains Chris Spain, chief strategy officer for HydroPoint Data Systems.
“Based on that allocation, there’s a tier rate, which increases as you go over a certain percentage of each tier,” he says. “There’s a compelling reason for customers not to waste water, because obviously the only way you can deal with a rising population is to make sure water is being used efficiently. But at the same time, it has to be structured in such a format that if use does get successfully distributed, and it gets lowered and fewer revenues come in, you’re still able to operate.”
For a utility to get its economics in order can be a tall order, given that customers have been “indoctrinated by extraordinarily low water fees,” notes Spain. “If you look at the cost of water, a lot of energy goes into transporting it, there are incredible health considerations in making sure it’s purified and considerations in making sure it’s treated and disposed of property. There’s a huge cost, and that people have been so indoctrinated in the fact that it should be free is a big challenge for water districts.”
HydroPoint’s municipal customers have conveyed their water users that they’re going to raise rates and penalize those who waste, but will help the community by endorsing, sponsoring and rebating technology that if implemented should make it possible not only to avoid water waste, but to save water and reduce the water bill.
Tom Gwynn, president of Elster AMCO Water, points out that the primary challenges facing urban water districts include funding and pending lead legislation affecting water meter purchases. EPA legislation scheduled for 2014 will reduce lead content to less than 0.25%.
“This translates into increased meter pricing for water districts for traditional product offerings,” he says, adding that Elster provides both polymer and electronic meter offerings to allow improvements in meter accuracy and longevity.
AMI offerings complement the technologies, offering greater availability to meter data and increased meter system efficiencies, Gwynn says.
Gwynn believes AMR—fixed network and drive-by systems—offers the greatest benefit for the expenditure made.
“It is the lowest cost alternative for having some form of automatic meter data collection,” he says. “It can include leak detection, customer tampering alarms, no-water flow alarms, availability of data-logging, among other elements. Information is only as current as the most recent drive-by data collection. AMR allows reduction of meter reading costs and improved revenue recovery.
“For example, immediate access to hourly meter data for all customers is possible,” he says. “Date/time management allows correlating of meter data for entire regions or districts. Immediacy of data is particularly valuable for supporting customer issues or large revenue customers such as C&I accounts.”
Addressing the “inescapable” learning curve in adapting new technologies, Gwynn says one way to judge the quality of technology is its ease of use.
“Well-engineered software and appropriate customer support by the sponsoring organization both help to minimize learning curves,” he says. “Existing user references and testimonials in conjunction with technology pilots will provide new users valuable insights on how to minimize learning curves.”
Water conservation or the “wise” use of water starts with the installation of appropriate water metering technology, Gwynn says.
“It has long been recognized that a water meter is necessary to reduce water consumption,” he adds. “The more accurate and reliable the meter choice, the more equitable the system of water accountability can be. This reality has driven the creation of new no-moving parts electronic metering technologies.”
In addition to the water meter, other technologies help address the challenge of urban water consumption, such as landscape irrigation.
“AMI increases the efficiency by which a customer understands landscaping water use and can use the information to adjust behavior,” says Gwynn. “Hourly water use data is particularly valuable to this effort.”
Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.