AMI—the All-Purpose Tool
Utilities are discovering that advanced metering infrastructure not only allows them to collect information, but lets them use data to educate and inform customers.
Large dams. Bigger pipes. Huge reverse osmosis plants. Larger pumps. Buying ever more water from other providers.
These are the solutions that water districts have turned to far too frequently in their search to maximize their water resources, says Trevor Hill, president and chief executive officer of Global Water, a Phoenix-based company that owns and operates 16 water and wastewater utilities in Arizona.
Hill says that the better solution is to use existing resources in more efficient ways. In other words, utilities should educate their clients on the ways in which they can minimize the amount of water they consume each month, resulting in water delivery systems that waste as few gallons as possible of this important natural resource.
One way that utilities can do this is by not only relying on Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) to collect data, but by using this data to tell customers exactly how they can reduce their own consumption.
“We believe that the water world has been preoccupied with supply-side solutions to water conservation for too long,” says Hill. “People always want to build a large dam or a huge reverse osmosis plant. They want to install bigger pipes and pumps. There’s always been this fascination with supply-side solutions. But we believe that instead we should use
the resources we already have, in better ways.”
Meters like this one help increase efficiency.
It’s an approach that Hill says not enough water utilities are taking today. And that, he says, is unfortunate.
AMI can make a big difference in the amount of water that utilities send to their customers each year, but only if utilities use this technology to its fullest capabilities.
At the same time, a proper use of AMI, and the data it generates, can save water utilities precious dollars when it comes to the maintenance and repair of their pipes, pumps, and other infrastructure, says Paul Lekan, vice president of marketing with Hazelwood, MO-based Aclara. And saving dollars is especially important today when city budgets are facing unprecedented squeezes.
“It will take trillions of dollars to completely renovate the water systems across this country,” says Lekan. “But for a fraction of this cost, water districts can deploy AMI to help them better target the work that they need to do now, to maintain their equipment. We are not going to be able to replace entire water systems overnight. But AMI allows water utilities to target their replacement efforts where they are most needed.”
The manufacturers of AMI technology say that water utilities are embracing AMI and using the data it generates to study water use patterns among their consumers.
This doesn’t mean, though, that water utilities are yet using AMI to its fullest capabilities. And it certainly doesn’t mean that utilities are using the data that AMI generates to cut down on the amount of water their clients consume.
Until the latter happens, say AMI pros, water utilities will continue to miss out on one of the most important benefits that this technology provides.
Turning data into a tool
For Hill, the problem is a simple one: water utilities aren’t shy about investing in AMI. And they don’t hesitate to collect the reams of data that AMI generates.
Unfortunately, too many utilities still don’t understand how to use this data properly, Hill says.
Hill sought to change this in 2003. That’s when he founded Global Water with the goal of building a water conservation-oriented utility. Global Water acquired 16 water utilities in Arizona, and then made sure that each of these utilities operated under the same AMI platform, FATHOM.
The goal of FATHOM is simple, Hill says. Utilities that use it will save money on operating their systems because they’ll receive data that tells them how they can reduce the amount of water that their clients consume.
Today, Global Water sells its FATHOM system to other utilities that the company doesn’t own.
“All along we’ve been focused on adopting and integrating those technologies that help us meet our greater cause of reducing per capita water consumption and demand,” says Hill.
He adds that Global Water is ahead of the industry today, with many water utilities still using AMI only to collect data once a month or once a quarter.
This will change, though, as customers demand more information from their utilities. And like many changes today, the sputtering national economy will force it.
“Customers are being squeezed economically today,” says Hill. “The average guy has less in his pocket than he did five years ago. At the same time, the cost of water is starting to rise. These two lines will soon converge and bring about a change. Look at it this way: When customers’ water bills are $15, they don’t care that much about how much water they are using. When that water bill nears $100, they are no longer indifferent.”
Water prices are rising faster than inflation today, Hill says, largely because water utilities are dealing with such challenges as aging infrastructures, scarcity of water, new federal and state regulations, and the increasing pressure from their city councils to do more while spending less.
Utilities can meet these challenges by using AMI to steer their customers toward lower consumption, Hill says. And the way to do this is to provide them access to real-time information about their water use.
It does little good to provide consumers with their water consumption numbers a month after they’ve already consumed their water. This doesn’t allow customers to make changes in their consumption patterns, Hill says.
But if utilities allow their customers to click on an app or visit a secure webpage, so that they can see how much water they consumed yesterday or this morning, it gives these customers the opportunity to change their behavior immediately. This is a benefit for the consumer, who sees a lower water bill, and the utility, which sees less water consumed.
“We think that consumers will soon demand more information from their utilities,” says Hill. “They’ll get their bills and say, ‘Oh, my gosh—I can’t have used all that water.’ When you can show them that, yes, they are consuming that much water, they have an obvious next question: ‘How can you help me use less water than that?’ That trend is starting, and it will only grow stronger as prices continue to rise.”
Brian Fiut, Senior Product Manager at Itron Water Sales Group, says that customers and water utilities truly benefit when AMI, and the data it generates, allows for a direct two-way communication between customers and the water utilities serving them.
With Itron’s AMI technology, utilities can receive updated water consumption data from their customers on an hourly basis. When customers call with questions about their water bills, the utility can tell them exactly how much water they consumed not only each day, but also each hour of each day.
This way, customers can pinpoint exactly why a water bill may have jumped significantly for a particular month.
“Customers who have issues with a bill can get a real answer as to why their bill was as high as it was,” says Fiut. “Understanding how much usage occurred, and when, will enable them to take steps, if necessary, to make sure that their future bills aren’t as high.
“This isn’t how things worked before,” he continues. “In the old days, utilities were doing monthly, and sometimes quarterly, billing statements. They would estimate the amount of water that a residential customer would consume. With the technologies we have today, utilities can drill in on any given day and on any given hour and report back to customers what their consumption was, the actual usage for these periods.”
This gives new power to customer-service representatives to solve potential customer billing problems in real time, Fiut says.
Customers might call up to complain about a bill. The customer-service representative can, relying on usage data provided by AMI, determine if these customers saw a big spike in water-usage on a particular day. The representative can then rely this information to consumers. One consumer may realize he spent that day filling up his backyard pool. Another may remember that this was the day on which she forgot to turn her lawn sprinkler off before heading to bed.
This data might also provide customers with a warning that they may have a water leak that they need to fix before it becomes an even bigger, and costlier, problem, Fiut says.
And not only does this type of AMI use make for more accurate billing, it also provides a credibility boost to water utilities, Fiut says.
“The ability to communicate quality information back to customers in real time means that the trust is there between customers and utilities,” says Fiut. “You don’t have utilities telling customers that they don’t know why their water bills are so high. You don’t have utilities telling their customers that they’ll have to look into something and get back to them with an answer later. Utilities don’t have to send someone out to look at customers’ meters. They don’t have to drag out the bill-reconciliation process. They are providing quick answers in real time, and that’s a huge benefit to both utilities and to their customers.”
Utilities who want to provide additional service to their customers can send consumption reports to end users through e-mail as an easy-to-read PDF. This provides consumers with a tangible record of their water usage, and makes it clearer to them exactly when their water consumption spiked to higher levels.
Fiut says it’s important for water utilities to explore ways to use AMI and the data it generates to reduce the costs of providing water.
This has always been the case, but it’s even more crucial today, Fiut says. That’s because the dismal national economy has forced municipalities across the country to squeeze more out of their budgets. To help balance their budgets, some municipalities are cutting services or asking their residents to pay more for the services they do receive.
These budget problems have resulted in municipalities that have long delayed needed improvements to their infrastructures, something that Fiut says can lead to serious problems.
“When dealing with water, the infrastructure quality is so important,” he says. “Fresh water, and wastewater, too, is so important to the health and economic vitality of a region.”
Water districts that can prove that they are using AMI to produce consumption data that helps consumers reduce the amount of water they use can go a long way toward proving to the boards and councils that govern them that they are looking for ways to reduce costs.
By clearly demonstrating the benefits that AMI can bring, water districts might even convince their local councils and boards to free up what limited money they have so that they can invest in additional data-mining technology, Fiut says.
“With budgets being strained, the business case value for investing in a robust AMI deployment is a little bit harder to communicate to decision-makers, to the city councils and mayors,” says Fiut. “This is especially true when other issues, perceived to be more pressing, are in front of them.
“It’s incumbent on us, as a supplier to utilities, to articulate in a meaningful way the efficiencies that utilities can attain when they do invest in AMI,” he adds. “We have to be able to show them the payback profiles, the importance of delivering better customer service. That way, when an AMI opportunity presents itself, not only is the city council or decision-makers on the board ready to accept it, so are the members of the community at large.”
Moving Toward Efficiency?
Grant Van Hemert, water/wastewater applications engineer with Schneider Electric, says that municipalities are becoming more comfortable with AMI. But he agrees with Hill from Global Water that most municipalities are still unaware of all of the potential benefits of the technology.
It’s similar to what happens to many people when they purchase the latest smart phone. They’re amazed at what the product can do, how it can simplify their lives. But rarely do most smart phone users take advantage of all the applications that their new phones offer.
AMI today is already helping many municipalities better pinpoint serious leaks in their systems, Van Hemert says. And that’s not a small benefit.
“A municipality may have 100 million gallons of water a day going into their plant and 20 million gallons each going out into five distribution zones. What happens after that point is the big question,” says Van Hemert. “The benefit of AMI is that operators can determine that instead of a leak in Region Five somewhere, that they have a leak in the Maple Hill subdivision on Maple Boulevard somewhere. They can see that they are losing 10,000 gallons of water on that street specifically. That results in a huge savings of both time and money for municipalities.”
By pinpointing the location of leaks, utilities can not only repair the leaks faster, they’ll also waste less manpower in doing so. They won’t have to send workers across their water system searching for the source of the leak. With AMI, they’ll already know where that leak is.
Like others in the AMI field, though, Hemert is still waiting for water districts to tap into the true power of this technology.
Part of the delay stems from the fact that AMI systems and other water-district technologies rarely communicate well with each other. AMI sends water districts key information. But the technology that districts use to analyze and interpret this data doesn’t communicate well with AMI systems yet.
Some water districts work around this. Others simply ignore the vast potential for changing consumer behaviors that AMI presents.
Hemert describes the problem like this: A municipality may be operating a remote communications system that picks up key data from pump stations and towers. They might then use a second communications network that connects with the district’s AMI infrastructure.
This, of course, is less than an ideal system.
“Over time what will happen is that municipalities will wonder why they are doing everything twice,” says Hemert. “They’ll ask, ‘Why are we doubling up? Why are we making twice the investment on radio and communication networks?’”
Water districts aren’t yet at this point, Hemert says. Part of the reason is that AMI technology is still relatively new. Then there’s the matter of the budget crises that so many municipalities are experiencing. They’re simply too overwhelmed, thanks often to skeleton staffs, to spend time planning ways in which to use their AMI technology more efficiently.
“AMI is relatively new. When I look at AMI, I personally see something that the industrial control and automation industry went through during the last two or three decades,” says Hemert. “The water districts aren’t to the point, yet where they realize they can do meter intelligence and tie that in with their operational data. They’re not there yet. They still see these two functions as separate. But, over time, this will change.”
At Global Water, Hill has already embraced the new way of using AMI. The water districts that his company runs use AMI technology to tell their customers, in real time, just how much water they are using. This often leads to a change in the way customers water their lawns, do their laundry, or run their dishwashers. It might even lead them to take shorter showers.
“We have always wanted to rely on a tool that allows customers to manager their own behavior,” says Hill. “I’ve always said that the best conservation tool in the world is the brain our customer. There is nothing more power than thousands of people finding ways to help themselves. It is our fundamental core belief to put water management tools in our customers’ own hands so that they can manage their behavior better.”
Global today also makes its FATHOM system available to other municipalities through a cloud service. Hill describes FATHOM as AMI technology coupled with customer information service technology.
Hill says that water districts will soon have to provide this technology to their customers. The reason? Customers will demand it. Global Water already offers consumers an app for their smart phones that they can access to see instantly how much water they are using.
“It has to occur. People believe that information should be put into their hands,” he says. “The banks do it. Twitter does it. CNBC does it. This is where we see the market headed.”
For now, though, an increasing number of water districts are using AMI technology to save money in other ways.
Lekan, from Aclara, points to a utility in the Northeast part of the country. Officials with it had assumed, like most would, that its oldest water mains, the ones in the 50- to 100-year range, would need to be replaced first. However, by using AMI technology, district officials were able to determine that it was actually the water mains that were 30 years old that were leaking the most. These mains, it turns out, were located in marshy, salty areas that ate away at them. The 100-year-old mains were located in areas that were friendlier to long pipelines.
“Instead of using guesses and hunches, the people with this district were able to hone in on what their system really needed,” says Lekan. “That saved them a significant amount of time and money.”
Author's Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.