Pros and Cons of Meter-Reading Automation

Jan. 1, 2010

Until recently, reading water meters in Lake Arrowhead, CA, was a hassle for much of the year. This mile-high resort community in the San Bernardino Mountains, 90 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, gets over 12 feet of snow in an average winter.

“When meters were covered with snow, we had to go four to six months without reading them,” recalls Marc Lippert, customer service manager for the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District. “Sometimes a leak would be undetected, with water running under the snow, and no one ever seeing it. Then we would send out a bill for as much as $12,000, and the customer would call to protest; ‘I don’t even live there—it’s my part-time home,’ he would say.”

That happened often, because over half of the district’s customers are part-time residents. Lake Arrowhead’s population increases from about 12,000 in winter to over 25,000 in summer. The 15-square-mile district has 7,903 meters. It serves 167 commercial customers (some with multiple meters) and about 7,700 residential customers.

Now district staff can read meters from the comfort of their office no matter how deep the snow gets outside. They have installed a Mosaic AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) system from Datamatic Ltd., of Plano, TX. “From 1992 to 2006, we had a touch-read system,” says Lippert. “The meter reader would walk with a probe and touch the lid—when it wasn’t covered with snow. In 2006, we switched to a Datamatic Firefly drive-by AMR [automated meter reading] system that gave us reads via radio to a laptop in our vehicle. It solved the snow-billing problem, but someone still had to drive the route.”

Then Datamatic introduced Mosaic, and the Lake Arrowhead district began upgrading in mid-2008. Both systems offer data logging, which provides an hour-by-hour record of water use.

“If people question their water use, we can print out a graph that shows them how much water they used and when they used it,” says Lippert.

Tiptoeing Gingerly
The Lake Arrowhead district is exceptional in its rapid and wholehearted embrace of meter-reading automation. Among US water utilities considering automation, most follow a cautious step-by-step approach that can take many years, involving preparation of business cases, feasibility studies of various technologies, want lists codified into requests for proposals, and pilot tests with small numbers of meters.

Meanwhile, as manufacturers explore new ways to automate meter reading and new uses for the reams of data these technologies can generate, each enhancement gives the utilities something else to study and pilot-test before installing a comprehensive automated system.

Contributing to this hamster-wheel effect is the lack of industrywide standards for AMR and AMI systems. As a result, components from different manufacturers may be incompatible.

“Some companies can interface with different makers of meters, but none of the MIUs [meter interface units] from one company can be read by receivers of another company,” says Richard Harris, manager of water conservation at Oakland, CA-based East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which serves more than 1.3 million customers with 400,000 meters in a 330-square-mile service area. “The meters could stay in the ground, but the endpoints would have to change.”

EBMUD has six separate pilot tests underway—two with AMR systems and four with AMI systems. “I’m interested in open source, not a pigeonhole,” says Harris. “I want to know how this market evolves.”

Conservation and Efficiency
Where irrigation has been curtailed due to drought, water districts may send out the “water police” in an effort to catch violators and encourage neighbors to snitch on each other.

Lake Arrowhead’s customers may irrigate only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the summer. “Other districts are leery of using AMI as a Big Brother enforcement tool, but we view it as a water conservation tool,” says Lippert. “That’s the way it should be used.”

Photo: CVWD Water
Endpoint and meter installation
Photo: CVWD Water
Typical endpoint installation

Harris agrees. “We see AMI as a new tool for obtaining conservation and more immediate feedback to customers,” he says. “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced an initiative to reduce California’s per capita water use 20% by the year 2020. We feel AMI will help utilities and customers reach that goal.”

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has been reading its 180,000 meters manually. “We did a business case study which led us to the decision to explore a fixed-network AMI system rather than a drive-by AMR technology,” says Heather Pohl, who manages the AMI program.

In February 2009, the SFPUC selected the Aclara AMI System. The installation will take about two years. “The first year, we’ll put in a third of the endpoints, test the system, and then deploy the other two-thirds for the second phase of the project,” she says.

In April 2007, after the fourth-driest winter on record for the region, San Francisco asked customers to reduce water use voluntarily by 10%. “That means encouraging measures such as taking a nine-minute shower instead of a 10-minute shower,” says Pohl. “These extra voluntary cutbacks in consumption provide a little more carryover storage in the water system for the next year, so we can minimize mandatory water rationing during a potential multi-year drought. We monitor reservoir water levels and look at snowmelt regularly. We had to enforce mandatory water rationing in the late 1980s. If we have to do it again, AMI would make monitoring and enforcement a lot easier.”

Southern California has an annual evapotranspiration rate of 50 inches and an average annual rainfall of less than 12 inches. Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, the Western Municipal Water District serves a population of more than 890,000 through retail and wholesale service connections in western Riverside County. “Seventy percent of the water we deliver goes to single-family homes, and 60% of that goes to landscaping,” says Tim Barr, water use efficiency manager.

“We’re doing a lot of work with smart irrigation controllers,” says Barr. “Someday, a link between smart controllers and smart meters will give us additional efficiencies and benefits. We can measure flow through the meter, and, together with the smart controller, we will be able to capture distribution inefficiencies. If there is no set irrigation time and a large flow, the AMI meter should be able to alert us to that as well.”

Another community where automatic sprinkler systems raise water conservation issues is Frisco, TX, 30 miles north of Dallas. The city has a population of 102,000 and 37,000 residential and commercial meters. “In 2008, our residents used an average of 234 gallons per person per day,” says Gary Hartwell, public works director. “The range was from 141 gallons in December to 402 gallons in July.”

Frisco uses AMR technology now, but plans to implement an AMI system in the near future and be completely converted within five years. “AMI will be a tool for us to help folks understand that they don’t need to overwater their lawns,” says Hartwell. “Education is the key to reducing the waste of water.”

Instead of water conservation, Hartwell speaks about water efficiency. “We recently had a drought here in North Texas,” he says. “We had tough restrictions because the lake levels were so low. Now that the lakes are full, people ask, ‘Why should I conserve?’

“You can’t identify with conserving something that there’s a lot of, at least temporarily,” he adds. “If you use something efficiently, you don’t have to sacrifice anything, just use it smartly.”

Photo: Lake Arrowhead Community Services District
New metering systems include data logging, providing hourly water use records.

Tentative in Tacoma
Sometimes a water utility’s inherent complexity precludes swift adoption of an AMI system. That’s the case in Tacoma, WA—a city of 202,700 people located 37 miles south of Seattle.

Tony Lindgren, maintenance program engineer for distribution operations at Tacoma Water, a division of Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU), says that in the mid-1990s Tacoma Water installed AMR technology from Sensus Metering Systems Inc., of Raleigh, NC. Using analog telephone lines, this technology allows the utility to call meters three inches and larger, daily, for accurate readings to calculate a system development charge, and then for billing. “We still get yearly software updates, but, now, many phone lines are digital, and it doesn’t work with those,” he says. “When they fall off, we read their meters with hand-held Sensus touchpad devices.”

Meter readers manually read Tacoma Water’s smaller meters and the electricity meters for Tacoma Power, another TPU division. Tacoma Power is pilot testing transmission of electricity readings through TPU’s Click! fiber optic cable network. The water meters, however, are in front yard pits. Tacoma gets an annual average of 39 inches of rain, and many pits stay wet much of the year. “The last thing you want is an electrical device in a potential water area,” says Lindgren. Instead, a radio frequency transmitter would send signals between a water meter and a collector on a pole or tower, from which a modem could link them with Click!

Further complicating matters is a patchwork of customer service jurisdictions. With about 100,000 meters (65% inside the city limits, 35% outside), Tacoma Water serves areas that Tacoma Power doesn’t, and vice versa. “We need to find a technology that works for both, individually and together, or maybe introduce two or three different technologies,” says Lindgren. “We want to use the cable anywhere we can, but Tacoma Water is in places where Click! isn’t. In those areas, we may use a cellular system or something else.”

A pilot test of an Itron AMI system began in mid-2007, and is continuing. “We put in 450 units to completely cover two meter-reading routes, and we chose routes that already had the power pilot going,” says Lindgren. “Now we’re trying to integrate this fixed network with our billing system from SAP.” The world’s largest business software company, SAP, is based in Walldorf, Germany, and has an Americas headquarters in Newtown Square, PA.

TPU also has a team discussing the “smart grid” philosophy, which a recent business case document describes as “the integration of Tacoma Power and Tacoma Water’s infrastructure for managing, planning, and conserving resources which will facilitate the efficient delivery of services.”

Lindgren advises other utility managers considering AMI to study it carefully. “AMI is not as straightforward as people think,” he says. “Also remember that the technology is going to advance. You can always wait for something, but at some point you need to do what works for your utility.”

Customer Service
Notifying customers with leaks in real or near-real time avoids complaints weeks or months later. “Utilities work hard to avoid high bill complaints,” says Peter Sanburn, Itron’s senior product marketing analyst. “Using AMI proactively to detect in-home leaks improves customer relations, provides better customer service, and decreases the loss of water. Everyone wins.”

Photo: Lake Arrowhead Community Services District
Property damage and wasted water from an undetected winter leak

Itron supplies AMI equipment to the Cucamonga Valley Water District in San Bernardino County, CA, which serves a population of 186,000 and has 46,500 connections. A five-year AMI conversion there, launched in 2006, is replacing about 10,000 meters a year. “Irrigation systems are our largest concern when dealing with residential customers,” says Robert Kalarsarinis, the district’s field service foreman. “A customer will call and ask, ‘Why is my bill so high?’ We tell him, ‘Your bill is high because your gardener left your sprinklers running too long.’ When he asks us to prove it, we can show him, if he’s on the AMI network. This has happened with about 200 customers so far, and not one of them questions it. We show them the piece of paper. Their timer settings correlate with our peak usage data.”

Customer service representatives also can compare hourly usage patterns for customers with similar water requirements, then offer recommendations on sprinkler settings and other consumption issues.

The AMR system stores up to 74 days’ worth of data, but a staff member had to visit the meter, attach an interrogator, and download the data. The AMI system delivers up to 240 days of water use data directly to the office. “We run daily reports with Mosaic,” says Lippert. “In any 24-hour period when a customer’s water has not stopped moving, we suspect a leak. My meter readers have turned into customer service field representatives who deal with leaks. If we find a meter moving fast and no one is home, they’ll go out and walk around the house. If they can’t find the leak, they’ll turn the valve off and make sure the meter isn’t moving.”

Opportunities With AMI
Tom Galuska, marketing manager for Sensus Metering System’s Water and Gas AMI division, says most metering automation sales are still walk-by and drive-by AMR systems, although many of the large water utilities are requesting AMI proposals. “AMI deployment is growing, but I don’t see AMR going away anytime soon,” he says. “Of the 56,000 water utilities in the US, more than half are smaller municipals with 25,000 or fewer customers, and they are still interested in AMR.”

Utilities that implement AMI retain a drive-by AMR capability for enhanced flexibility and as a backup collection method if a natural disaster disrupts the primary fixed-network collection infrastructure, says Ian MacLeod, director of marketing for Master Meter Inc., in Mansfield, TX.

The first question Galuska asks when meeting with a utility’s management is, “What do you want to accomplish?” Some just want a more efficient monthly meter read, and, for these utilities, AMR is usually the most cost-effective solution. Others want additional features, and AMI goes beyond meter reading to offer a wealth of water management opportunities.

Manufacturers are divided on the desirability of standards, based to some extent on the radio frequencies they use to transmit AMI data. In a licensed environment, the utility typically owns and has exclusive use of its frequency, minimizing interference and signal degradation due to overuse. An unlicensed frequency is open to any users who comply with the Federal Communications Commission standards, including makers of cordless phones and garage door openers, so interference and signal degradation can be a problem.

Although exceptions exist, companies with licensed frequencies tend to use star networks, while companies with unlicensed frequencies install mesh networks. In a star network, each endpoint communicates directly with its collector. In a mesh network, each endpoint also may serve as a repeater, forwarding signals from other endpoints to a gateway from which they can reach a collector. At Lake Arrowhead, mesh technology enables meters on the backside of a ridge to communicate through a gateway with a collector that they could not access directly.

Leak Detection
A leaking toilet can consume up to 90,000 gallons a month, notes Sanburn. During the middle of the night, a typical dwelling should have little or no water flowing, so that’s the best time for AMI technology to detect a leak. “An AMI system can set a threshold and issue an alert if the flow crosses that threshold and is sustained for a set length of time,” he says. “Then the utility can call to say, ‘We think you have a leak, based on your meter data.’ It’s a great way for the utility to manage in-home leaks and be proactive in their customer service.”

Through leaks in its own distribution system, the average utility loses up to 30% of the water it produces, Sanburn says. To disclose such “non-revenue” leaks, a utility can attach acoustic leak detection devices to its water mains.

“These devices actually ‘listen’ to the flow of water in the system, sending acoustic readings back to the utility,” says Paul Lekan, vice president of marketing at Aclara, a subsidiary of ESCO Technologies Inc. based in Hazelwood, MO. “At the utility, software correlates readings from multiple devices, allowing the utility to pinpoint the location of any leaks without sending workers with special equipment to the field.”

Sanburn says another way to detect non-revenue leaks is with district metering. If a distribution line is leaking, the distribution meter will register more flow than the sum of the flows through the individual meters it feeds.

In-Home Display
EBMUD is pilot testing a refrigerator magnet with a liquid crystal display that continuously reads the water meter at the street and displays the number of units going through it. “People don’t know how to conserve if they don’t know what they’re using,” says David Wallenstein, associate engineer. “We’re interested in some real-time thing they could look at. We don’t know yet how long the battery will last, or whether people will use it every day.”

Bruce Bharat, director of marketing at Elster AMCO Water Inc., in Ocala, FL, says an in-home display also can alert the user, while the endpoint notifies the utility if it detects a leak, tamper, or possible reverse flow.

Several utilities have devised creative ways to fund in-home displays. “Some utilities sell them, and some of those subsidize the price,” says Bharat. “Others try to rent them, adding $5 or so to the monthly bills of users who decide they want that service.”

He warns, though, that, in the water industry, in-home displays tend to be slow sellers. “Publishing the data online will be a lot easier and more beneficial to utilities,” says Bharat. “Nearly 75% of the US population has Internet access.”

Kalarsarinis also prefers Internet viewing. “An in-home wall display just shows the read at that moment,” he says. “With online, customers can go back 30 days, 60 days, whatever, and see where they are using their water.” The Cucamonga Valley district plans to offer its customers online access to their data soon.

Remote On and Off
AMI enables a utility to remotely shut off the water of a non-paying customer and turn it on again after he has paid. “It’s troublesome to send someone out and physically shut off the water,” says Ted Worth, Southeast and Caribbean marketing manager for Transparent Technologies. “There’s the time and expense involved, and the confrontation with the customers.”

Sanburn of Itron cautions that actuator valves enabling remote disconnection and reconnection add to the cost of an AMI system. “Actuator valves are difficult and expensive to plumb in because of physical limitations within a meter pit,” he says. “While the operational benefits of actuator valves are clear, the business case for them is still being evaluated.”

Tiered Rates
Most of the people interviewed for this article expect water utilities to adopt tiered time-of-day rates eventually. Some electric utilities use time-of-day pricing to reduce peak demand for power and avoid blackouts.

“For water utilities, the issue will be infrastructure avoidance,” says Mark Shamley, vice president of operations for Transparent Technologies, in Boulder, CO. “If you’re deciding how big a new water treatment plant needs to be, you’ll size it to serve peak demand, which may be from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. If people use less water during those times, you can reduce the size of the water treatment facility.”

Tiered pricing based on water usage already exists, especially in arid regions with a limited water supply. Francie Kennedy, water conservation coordinator in San Juan Capistrano, CA, says her city introduced tiered pricing in 1991 during a severe drought. “We were under a mandatory curtailment of 30%, so instituting the tiered rates was a way for the water department to communicate what an appropriate use of water was,” she explains.

San Juan Capistrano now has 35,000 residents and 11,000 meters. All except office and commercial users—which comprise just 2% of the total—are on a water budget. A customer’s water allocation is based on the number of days in a billing period, square footage of irrigated area, and weather during that period. “If it gets hot, you get more water,” she says.

The rate structure has three tiers. Customers who stay within their allocation (Tier 1) pay the lowest rate. Additional water (Tier 2) costs 37% more. Above 200% of allocation (Tier 3), the price is roughly double the Tier 2 rate, and 173% of the Tier 1 rate—a jump designed to capture the attention of profligate water users.

The Cucamonga Valley Water District introduced tiered rates in May of 2008. They are less punitive, but the spread between tiers increased in 2009 and will rise again in 2010 and 2011.

“It seems to work,” reports Kalarsarinis. “Customers say, ‘I’m trying to cut back. I want to stay out of the higher tiers.’”

EBMUD has usage-based tiered pricing for its 321,000 single-family residential customers and is also pumping surcharges for those at higher elevations. “If you live in the hills, you’re paying for it,” says Harris.

About the Author

George Leposky

George Leposky is a science and technology writer based in Miami, FL.