Getting More Mileage out of AMI

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Utilities can use Advanced Metering Infrastructure to assess meter performance, determine water balance, and improve customer service.

By Todd Stocker

Traditionally, utilities install fixed-network advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to collect meter reads for billing. These systems provide at least 24 readings a day, every single day, allowing utilities to accurately calculate bills, eliminate estimated billing and improve revenue collection.

What's more, customer service representatives can use the data provided by AMI to answer consumers' questions. In addition, utilities with AMI systems often offer usage data to consumers through web interfaces.

There are other ways to get value out of AMI, however. Utilities can use AMI data in critical analyses to determine water balance, gather information related to meter performance, and implement programs to educate consumers as to the best time to use water.

Data Analysis Reduces Costs

Every utility is concerned with managing non-revenue water, and AMI data can play a crucial role in calculating true water loss. By comparing time-synched, total consumption data measured at the customer's meter to how much water is pumped into a distribution system by the master meter, it is possible to calculate how much water is lost from the distribution system. Once the utility understands this potential water loss in the distribution system, it can initiate additional analyses to establish if the loss is the result of inaccurate metering, non-metered consumption, unauthorized consumption, or distribution leaks.

Utilities can use AMI data to determine when water meters should be replaced. Water meters that have been in service over a long period tend to under-report water use. By analyzing the performance of a meter over time using data collected by the AMI system, the utility may see a pattern that indicates the meter is under-reporting and revenue may be lost to the utility.

Sometimes a water meter will stop working altogether. When this happens, the AMI system will proactively alert the utility that the meter is reporting zero usage. Without AMI, it is difficult for utilities to spot non-working meters in a timely fashion.

Once the utility completes analyses of AMI data to establish the true level of water loss in a system, it can hone in on the location of leaks and evaluate their severity as input to field-maintenance planning. This may involve notifying customers of potential on-premise leaks or adding leak-detection devices to the distribution system to locate the underground leaks.

Analyses of consumption data provided by AMI can trigger alarms to alert customers when the system detects constant use or use that does not conform to the usual. For utilities that want to recommend specific methods of conservation, such as lawn irrigation in the evening when water demand is lowest, the AMI data analysis can generate messages to alert customers to periods of low demand. Finally, when a water use restriction or ban is in place, all customers above the target-use threshold can be alerted. The utility can also be notified should a visit to the customer's premises be required to enforce the high water use ban.

AMI as a Service

For some utilities, the capital expense outlay to build a fixed-network AMI system is prohibitive. The up-front spike in costs associated with installing a fixed network precludes them from implementing AMI, even when these expenses can be capitalized over time. In these cases, utilities have few options - they must rely on manual meter reading or on drive-by systems. Both of these options limit the amount of data collected by the utility and consequently reduce flexibility to implement systems to improve customer service and utility operations.

In the service model, however, the AMI vendor builds out the fixed network system and maintains ownership of the hardware, head-end system and any additional software necessary to operate the system. The customer receives access to the head-end software and owns all its meter data.

The advantage of this approach is that the burden of operating the network is no longer the utility's concern. The AMI vendor guarantees certain criteria such as read rates and network performance. The utility pays fees for monthly service and for installation of meters on the network. This way, costs are kept relatively low up front, are consistent over time and can be planned over the life of the network. In addition, utilities can add upgrades - such as leak detection - to the network at any time.

As AMI vendors develop better applications for analyzing meter data, the business case for AMI will improve, extending its usefulness beyond billing to mission-critical applications. And, with advances in how AMI is deployed, any utility that wants to take advantage of AMI will be able to do so cost- effectively.

About the Author: Todd Stocker is the Director of Water and Gas Product Management for Aclara, a leader in device networking, data-value management and customer communications to water, gas and electric utilities globally.

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