Tuning In to Water Radio AMR Networks Boost the Case for Wireless
Stories of leak detection with automatic meter reading abound.
In Boston, there’s a report about how one enterprising water-works employee used the new automated meter-reading (AMR) system to do in-depth analysis of water usage in local hotels and motels. Tallying guestroom figures, he estimated average consumption and then was able to flag unusually high usage—indicative of assorted “severe leaks and broken or grossly under-registering meters,” recalls Don Schlenger, a well-known figure in the industry who participated in setting up the first AMR decades ago. He’s now a partner of Cognyst Consulting in Kinnelon, NJ.
Then there’s the more recent experience at Cucamonga Valley Water District (CVWD) near Los Angeles. In the summer of 2005, its fixed-network AMR went “live,” and almost immediately “CVWD began finding customer-side leaks,” says Diane Guffin, vice president of water sales for Itron (Spokane, WA), the market-leading AMR industry supplier. One homeowner found he was losing nearly 2 gallons a minute—that’s 86,000 a month, costing about $400 on the bimonthly water bill. Prior to installing the AMR, CVWD was billing only every 60 days, a span imposed by the unavailability of meter readers. In this and other cases, it also postponed discovery of leak problems. After automation, CVWD Customer Service Officer Darron Poulsen reports that grateful customers have been praising the new level of service and the more frequent billing. CVWD is now looking to expand the coverage to its whole market.
As for resulting savings on water: In California alone, an estimated 81 billion gallons (worth $800 million) are now being lost annually to leakage statewide, the California Department of Water Resources estimates. Nationally, leakage loss has been calculated at 22 gallons per person per day, according to the American Water Works Association.
So, all told, AMR devices to date have probably detected hundreds if not thousands of leaks and other anomalies, identifiable only by continuous monitoring in brief intervals—which is obviously only doable by some automated means. A single faulty toilet can lose hundreds of gallons per day; old-style reading intervals of 60 or 90 days, or estimated billing methods, can’t “see” this loss until thousands of gallons are lost. But an automatic reader can track many thousands of end-use profiles continually, analyze potential problems (including backflow or meter tampering), and then dispatch a service order for fixing them.
Better still, as Schlenger notes, the newest high-frequency acoustic permaloggers can now track leaks in unmetered distribution lines; devices are now available and being piloted, he adds.
Improved leak-detection capabilities and case studies of success may in part explain the recent boom in AMR sales, following hitting a brief plateau in 2004. Orders have been roaring in double digits. Of 86 million US water meters, about 21% now are read automatically, compared to 16.4% two years ago, according to just-released figures from the authoritative Scott Report, Ninth Edition (published by Schlenger’s Cognyst Consulting). Vendors these days are being inundated with requests for proposal (RFP), he notes. In February, the largest order for water AMR—covering 225,000 meters in New Jersey and New York—was announced; similar large procurements are under way for Atlanta, Kansas City, Colorado Springs, and Chicago.
Photo: AMR Technology
Touch coupler system eliminates meter reading.
A Better Handle on Billing
Along with affording water utilities better control over losses, AMR is touted as a major boon to accounting functions. As Itron’s Guffin says, it “can smooth the transition from a quarterly or semimonthly to a monthly cycle.” More frequent billing is preferable, as it often brings higher revenue. Flat-fee or estimated billings strategies are probably losing money too, she adds. In large systems, the prospect of reading tens of thousands of meters every month is daunting, but, if automated, it becomes easy.
AMR also eases any transition to variable or other special billing and rate structures. Example: An Australian utility recently implemented 20,000 data endpoints from AMR vendor Datamatic (Plano, TX), enabling a change in rates during the peak-demand dry season. Revenue will increase, but water usage should decline. This strategy—although primarily done for conservation—will also enable a greater reserve capacity to be maintained, thereby deferring a capital expense for expansion.
A similar AMR for Santa Fe, NM, will help the city monitor mandatory conservation measures, adds Datamatic Sales Vice President Scott Durham.
Automation can also eliminate the need for special reading for a move-in/move-out or service shutoff: The needed data are typically already logged, and the utility “can simply load that up as part of their monthly collection cycle,” notes Stephen Thomas, marketing manager of Master Meter (Mansfield, TX).
Automation devices can be applied to systems quite selectively—say, to larger, more complex accounts only—thus ensuring that billing benefits and system payback will be quickly realized. In the late 1990s, for instance, Cellnet (Alpharetta, GA) outfitted Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for reading only 85 wholesale customer accounts at 279 metered facilities.
Other billing, customer service, and business benefits of AMR include flagging high consumption before the customer gets an unexpectedly big tab, improving cash flow management and revenue forecasting by tying detailed consumption info to production data and expected billings, support for a utility rate-making case, better meter sizing, determining optimal time in service, and reducing bill adjustments. In sum, says Schlenger, “There’s a conservation benefit, a revenue benefit, and a proactive customer service benefit.” Utilities, he adds, “are improving their understanding of these benefit areas.” And further refinements and enhancements of this rapidly evolving technology always lie very close ahead.
Product Lines Are Maturing
On that score, there’s been a steady progression in capabilities, together with increasing convergence—i.e., heftier functionality integrated into one package. There’s even something of “a migration capability emerging,” says Schlenger, suggesting that technology that is purchased today will not be as quickly outmoded as often occurs these days. It is now becoming relatively easier for a utility to begin its automation move with a modest AMR investment in, say, basic handheld array, and then, says Guffin, as budgets allow, to “move on to a more saturated mobile environment,” and finally, to integrate these into “the latest fixed-network trend.” (For more on the basic hardware and terminology, see sidebar “AMR: Some ABCs.”)
Assorted new alternatives for making a comfortable upgrade are also emerging, the better to match a utility’s circumstances. One—perhaps best suited to utilities that invested in mobile AMR a few years ago (numbering perhaps one-tenth of water companies now)—would consist of simply installing the newest endpoints, offering beefed-up data collection abilities. Thus, for a relatively modest investment, the above-mentioned vastly improved leak-detection and billing resources can be had, on an affordable pace.
Alternatively, for the majority of water works that aren’t yet automated at all, a second path—aimed at installing either a fixed network (for those able to afford one)or a third path (for those committed to the lowest capital costs) looking for long-range optimization for a robust walking/driving mobile array—would make the most sense.
Besides being able to enjoy such system design flexibility, utilities will also find that endpoint devices offer improved customizability—that is, more choices within any given metering neighborhood. Steve Makgill, marketing manager of AMCO Automated Systems (Raleigh, NC), explains, “You don’t have to do something across your whole route that you don’t want at a particular site.” Thus, for instance, in a single mobile pass, meters for a mixed route of residential and commercial accounts could be read two different ways: for the homes, a basic monthly reading, but for big users, an in-depth daily usage readout. Both levels are stored in the endpoint memory. Some customization by two-way radio is also possible by the meter-reading driver, Makgill adds.
Network integration of the diverse wares of multiple vendors has not often been possible in the past but is becoming increasingly doable now. Jay Evensen, director of business development for Cellnet, notes that a utility, when making the business case for AMR, typically plans on “15 years’ nominal life, plus or minus.” Cellnet believes, he says, that over this long period, utilities “will probably want to change” or add hardware and new vendors. Thus, Cellnet standardizes a common endpoint for all (i.e., the meter interface unit, or MIU, which attaches to the water meter), “and makes it adaptable to multiple vendors’ technologies … to give utilities the option to adapt whatever existing meters they have, or whatever flavor they want in the future, to an automated meter interface.”
Almost any attempt at standardization, even informal, is bound to be good for buyers.
Still another product that illustrates the easing of an upgrade is Datamatic’s optical meter reader. It “sees” the odometer needle’s position, says Durham, and thus overcomes the hurdle of how to automate reading of older meters that can’t otherwise be retrofitted with encoders. No other vendor has anything similar yet, he says. Datamatic has already sold more than 300,000.
Hardware that is more durable and more accurate, and capable of emitting farther-reaching signals, has also come to market. Master Meter’s drive-by system, dubbed the DIALOG 3G and introduced in 2002, made a dramatic design advance by combining the radio transmitter, battery, antenna, and encoder within a very compact vacuum meter register. This eliminates an external wire attachment, thus effectively making the system waterproof. It presents a huge advance in long-term reliability, Thomas believes, because many meters often sit below grade, exposed to moisture, corrosion, and gnawing critters. The latest model also offers a tunable radio to overcome interference and to expand the range. All in all, he says, “It was a big breakthrough,” and the device has been “selling like crazy.” The one-millionth unit shipped in May. A new model, designed for attachment to any existing meter brand, is due by year’s end.
Data Acquisition, Storage, and Transmission
Another critical improvement has been the move to more “intelligent,” or at least memory-enhanced, MIUs. Datamatic’s newer AMR endpoints, for example, can store two full years of online data in hourly increments, if need be. Similar capability is found in AMCO Automated Systems’ AMR for drive-by reading. Introduced two years ago, it can collect 35 days of history and transmit the meter-reading employee cruising by “at speed,” says AMCO’s Makgill. Master Meter supports 4,000 time-incremental usage data-points on a self-refreshing cycle, reports Marketing Manager Stephen Thomas.
Such innovations enable utilities to reap many of the benefits of a high-end fixed network system, using only mobile collection. This is especially impressive, technologically, because the original batteries will be able to give these benefits at little cost to their original lifespan.
By far the most significant technology and emerging trend, though, is fixed networking. After years of maturing in service to electric and gas companies, affordable networks for the water departments “have started to ramp up pretty rapidly” in the past year or so, says Tom Maselko of Sensus Metering Systems Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA), which recently acquired Advanced Metering Data Systems (Covington, LA) to ensure this capability.
A key technology battle here, he says, concerns endpoints’ radio range. Beaming meter data several hundred feet with ample strength “will enable you to get thousands of signals going to one central location.” Thus a utility will minimize its investment in reception/transponder points. High range becomes attainable if the system enjoys a very strong battery and antenna transmission system, aiming at well-elevated reception towers. “In our systems,” he says, “we can put up one or two towers to cover the whole utility.” Some competitors, he says, require 10 or 15 to cover the same terrain.
Cellnet is another fixed-network vendor, its core business being wireless AMR read either by fixed or with mobile devices, says Evensen. One of Cellnet’s projects, which is also one of the biggest anywhere, is Jacksonville Electric Authority, which (despite the name) uses 270,000 water-meter endpoints, together with 350,000 for electricity. Another big Cellnet job now under way in Colorado Springs will deliver 125,000 water-meter endpoints and nearly 400,000 MIUs for gas and electric automated readers.
The hot network trend these days, he says, is the serious interest brewing to set up municipal broadband wireless networks. As these materialize, a gamut of communications services will be integrated and offered for the benefit of whole urban populations—of which utility meter reading would be one part. In the near future, Cellnet believes, not only will water meters be networked by some means, but so will other water department and even wastewater operations, including functions like pumping stations, valves, flow meters, SCADA control systems, and status monitoring.
The foregoing show just a slice of the many innovations being churned out these days by AMR component makers; space limitations don’t allow discussion of several others.
Hexagram's long-range narrow band STAR System transmitter
A Few Caveats
As with any maturing marketplace awash with evolving technologies, a number of issues should be kept in mind—issues which also shift and change rapidly year by year. Here are a few current developments to watch:
Industry consolidations and shakeouts. Several have hit in recent years; more may follow. To some extent, exclusive agreements are aimed at locking up and limiting access to perceived leading technologies. For example, the Sensus agreement with AMDS noted above gives Sensus an exclusive on meter endpoints, which, the company says, can “consistently communicate directly with a tower-mounted” base station within a 5- to 10-mile range, thereby eliminating the need for many hundreds of network nodes found in competing systems. In 2003, meter leader Neptune Technology Group acquired DB Microware, a developer of utility automation software for meter reading, service order management, and route optimization. In 2005 Landis+Gyr allied with Neptune to develop and market an AMR endpoint. In June 2006, a deal between Neptune and fixed networking pioneer Hexagram gives the two a technology match between Hexagram’s STAR System and Neptune’s solid-state absolute E-Coder.
Pacts like these, though, as Schlenger explains, “will mean stronger companies with better product integration and support—but fewer choices. … [AMR networks] are likely to become more expensive, or could be.” He adds that in any procurement it’s always preferable “to have a half-dozen proposals to chose from rather than only one or two.”
Another key issue:
Limited interoperability and compatibility. There’s no real standardization yet among system parts. This is intentional and reflects competitive business strategies. Neptune’s mobile system, for example, won’t read AMCO’s meter. Maselko notes that out of six major meter makers—Neptune, Badger, Sensus, Master Meter, Hersey, and AMCO—four currently offer their own automatic readers. Hersey and AMCO, who don’t, partner with AMR specialists like Itron. Each meter maker “has [its] own protocols coming out of the encoder,” he adds, so not every AMR is able to read them. Compatibility, if it exists, is usually selective; for instance, Sensus and Neptune work with the major AMR devices but not with all (of which, Maselko notes, there have been dozens of startups “coming and going” over the years).
AMR-only makers such as Itron (30% of the market) and Datamatic naturally ensure cross-meter compatibility.
In 2005 the industry tried and failed to standardize meter output, and so, in lieu of that, Badger and Hersey have “unofficially” adopted the Sensus output as a standard, Maselko says.
If interoperability should ever come about, it would enable mixing and matching of competing wares, add more options and flexibility, and ease upgrading to new systems and vendors, putting downward pressure on costs.
Schlenger has advised water utilities to demand a prospective AMR vendor to support multiple meter brands, demand interoperability in its RFP, “be prepared to reject certain vendors, and be willing to negotiate with the selected vendor to avoid expensive and risky sole-source supply situations.”
Still another perennial issue for AMR:
Battery strength and projected life. Now that MIUs are being upgraded to store more data and transmit it more often, originally rated battery life may come up shorter than the prevailing standard, cited on several product Web sites, of 20 years. Schlenger points out that most AMR devices were designed to operate at low power with short bursts of transmission. If upgraded data capabilities are installed, one vendor advises, “you should read the fine print” on how their devices may reduce battery warranties or lives. Doing a battery change-out is a major undertaking.
Obsolescence. Meters have traditionally been expected to last a generation. AMR makers have tried to match them for longevity, but digital technology changes so rapidly that, almost inevitably, a system “could become obsolete before it had generated the anticipated payback,” says Schlenger. To combat this, utilities should look at both the intermediate and the long-range perspective when defining their specifications; push for standardization, open architecture, and product interoperability; insist on extended product support; and be resigned to the reality that well-engineered old systems can usually keep doing their job for many years.
What About Cost?
Pricing varies, of course, but, as a per-unit starting point, Maselko suggests that his Sensus-brand AMR would cost out at around $100 each; pairing this with a new meter upgrade (the two often being installed as a matched set) would add another $100. Price-competitive lower-end AMRs, he says, might be had for around $50.
Installation will add at least $20 each for easy batch jobs and up to quite significant unit costs for difficult meter sites, notes Itron’s Guffin. Installation quality, she adds, is critical and can have a very significant impact on resulting performance. Several firms, such as Honeywell, now specialize in doing AMR, notes Maselko, and others doing the work include equipment distributors, plumbing contractors, and the utilities themselves.
Operationally, there are additional costs to be borne for equipment servicing and testing. Utilities or installation contractors often do the first-line work. Add more costs, hopefully modest, for operator training.
Lastly, Schlenger’s Web site sums up by noting, “An AMR deployment is a high-profile project that requires careful planning,” giving thought to control systems, customer relations, project staffing, a human resources plan for displaced employees, job descriptions for new roles, and a re-design of customer service, to take advantage of all the new features and benefits.
Payback naturally varies. Vendors suggest that five years is a common target, but only rarely attained.
Hexagram data collector unit
Marshalling the Move
On this score, several vendors acknowledged that selling AMR is a challenge, given, for example, the diversity of utility requirements, the limitations imposed by legacy meters or other existing equipment, the impact on department staffing, and commonly tight budget circumstances.
Itron’s Guffin points out that AMR proposals often compete with more pressing capital projects such as infrastructure upgrades. Meter reading, she says, is viewed as “already working all right” and so not in need of overhaul; nor does it present much of a cost-avoidance opportunity.
Schlenger observes, “We’re sort of moving into a phase where [water utilities] have either already done it, or they’re having trouble justifying it”—although, again, the industry has lately been roaring, following a lull.
Reducing department staff to pay for AMR is onerous—and often not really necessary or advisable. Master Meter’s Thomas observes that many water departments are growing in load demand these days and need more staff, especially those who drive trucks. AMR comes into play as a good fit. “The utility gains the use of a valuable truck and driver to do much-needed system maintenance or other tasks,” says Thomas, when meter reading goes on autopilot.
Guffin agrees that reassignment rather than staff reduction is probably more common. Utilities, she says, look for payback coming from “increased revenues, from savings on water losses, vehicle savings, lower insurance premiums, and other overhead associated with the meter department.”
Finally, from Schlenger, are some insights on how water managers have succeeded in championing the move to automation from within. It’s often a matter, he says, “of assembling the diverse advantages to be gained and sort of bringing people to the table and creating a critical mass, if you will.” Thus, “the head of customer service will say, ‘I really want to have AMR—and I’d like to build my case around the fact that if we change the meters we’ll get more revenue—but I don’t want to [lay off] so many people.’ Or the guy in operations will say, ‘I really want AMR, but I don’t want to lose my people.’”
He sums up: “The person who succeeds in bringing this about is the one who gets everybody to throw some of their head-count and cost areas into the pot—in exchange for some future benefit.”
Writer David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.