AMI + GIS = Multiple Benefits

Sept. 12, 2015

Under what circumstances does it make sense for water utilities to integrate GIS and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)? “Utilities have been integrating GIS with AMI and AMR [automatic meter reading] for years,” says Joe Ball, director of marketing, Water North America for Itron. “Many utilities used their AMI/AMR deployments as a way to get accurate GIS coordinates of meter and communication module locations.”

“There are several instances when it makes sense for water utilities to integrate GIS with their AMI,” says Dan Pinney, global director of water marketing for Sensus. “Traditional overlays of GIS and AMI are often used for asset management, but the biggest benefit from the integration is for minimizing non-revenue water.”

In addition, according to Pinney, smart water meters are excellent at alerting the utility when leaks are present. Often, though, leaks happen between the endpoints in the distribution system itself. Adding devices like pressure systems is beneficial to detect non-revenue water in the distribution system, but GIS adds an extra layer of information by geocoding where the devices are located in the system. “Being able to do this is crucial to detecting and putting a stop to non-revenue water,” he says.

Compound series meters

According to Greg Richards, marketing manager of software for Badger Meter, technology changes now allow utilities to gather more information on many of the different assets that they have deployed and need to maintain throughout their systems. “Tying GIS and AMI systems together allows utilities to incorporate management and review of the information into a single, easy-to-use platform,” he says. “Gathering more GIS data within an AMI system enables advanced metering analytics to better manage their meter reading infrastructure, water distribution system, and consumption.” The larger and more diverse the geographic area served, the more value a utility may find in integrating its metering data collection and mapping systems.

Benefits of Integrating GIS and AMI
Besides being critical for asset management and minimizing non-revenue water, the integration of GIS and AMI is also an overall “game changer” for operations, according to Sensus’s Pinney. It enables water utilities to understand their distribution system and endpoints as one cohesive system instead of simply pipes and endpoints. “When integrated, the system takes snapshots in time of particular sections of pipe,” he says. “If you know that your distribution system is going through a particular area, and you’re associating all locations that are fed off that pipe, then you’re correlating all of that data and consistently taking snapshots in real time of particular geographic areas. This way, water coming in and out of certain pipes can be managed very quickly.” The combination of GIS and AMI also allows water utilities to create new billing cycles and target particular issues of the system, rather than simply billing geographically co-located units. This enables, for example, the billing of non-paying customers at a convenient time when they are more likely to pay, such as around the first of the month when certain checks arrive, as opposed to when a meter was traditionally scheduled to be read. “Emerging technologies using GIS also allow utilities to monitor places that can be problematic, including lift stations and drought and flood areas,” says Pinney. With this technology, AMI enables water utilities to deploy sensors and set alarms for potential issues, such as sewer overflow, while GIS pinpoints exactly where the issue will occur. Knowing what the problem is and where it is located before it happens can prevent significant complications.

“Overall, the geospatial information that you can get from GIS can add so much insight to an AMI network that helps people do their jobs better,” says John Sala, director of marketing for Neptune Technology Group. “Integrating GIS and AMI is not all just maps. One of the challenges where GIS helps is with geocoding.” When a fixed network goes in, if the utility did not opt to geolocate the meters during deployment, the utility will need a way to geocode those meter locations, because, historically, meters were not something that were in the GIS database. The GIS database might go as far as the service line or the lateral, because they typically want to understand where those are located. “Our N_SIGHT systems geocode meters using ESRI ArcGIS Online, down to the premise address, so that we can place them on maps,” he says. “This is the first step, from an AMI perspective, to really be able to leverage GIS. Geolocating in the field is always best, but without at least basic geocoding, you just get a ‘blob’—a coordinate of the zip code, or something like that, which is not useful at all for mapping.” Once you have the coordinates for the individual meters, or minimally, the premises, you can use the geospatial information on the maps to better manage the water distribution network and make more informed decisions about information you are receiving from Neptune’s system or other systems. “If you don’t have geospatial information, you’re kind of left in the dark,especially when something happens in the field, such as if a large C&I customer had a continuous leak, or a radio endpoint antenna gets damaged,” says Sala. “You have a bunch of points of information, but you don’t really know what the relationship is between them. If you have a bunch of meters that are not communicating to the host software, it is helpful to be able to see them on a map and understand the relationship to the collector(s) that the meters are ‘talking’ to.”

According to Itron’s Ball, using GIS to track customer meters’ locations enables utilities to improve asset management, billing route creation, service order data, operations, and more. “The utility can use commercially-available mapping applications to plot customer meter locations and make this information available to field workers, enabling them to locate assets assigned for investigation or service,” he says. “The utility can also map the meter locations along with other distribution network assets, such as mains, valves, fire hydrants, storage tanks, and pump stations to visually display their complete network.”

Disc series meter

“Connecting AMI and GIS allows utilities to track and manage their assets, crews, and work orders,” says Badger’s Richards. Correlating the data also helps to spot trends and determine whether they exist in isolated areas or systemwide. “For instance, if a group of people call the utility to complain about the lack of water pressure, reviewing the information in a map-based presentation will assist the utility in identifying the location of a problem within the system,” he says. In addition, geocoding the precise location of meters or other assets within a site improves productivity by helping crews locate them quickly, compared with simply having an address.

New GIS/AMI Integration Technologies
According to Ball, Itron’s AMI solution enables the storage and use of GIS data within its systems. “We offer mapping features within several of our products to give utility users a visual presentation of meter and/or account status related to consumption, leaks, tampers, alerts, events, and communications,” he says. Itron is also working with third-party vendors to interface AMI data collected, including GIS coordinates, into their applications, such as work order management and hydraulic models applications. This will help expand the use of AMI data within the utility. In addition, Itron’s professional services team will collect GIS coordinates for all meter assets while performing the AMI system deployment at the request of the utility.

Badger Meter’s most recent innovation is an end-to-end managed solution for utility management, called BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA). BEACON AMA combines the software suite with ORION AMI technology, using fixed and cellular networks to provide utilities with greater control, more information, and better customer service. The BEACON AMA cloud-based software includes a map-based application and integrates with GIS and other systems to help track utility assets and visualize the location of leaks, backflows, tampers, or other alerts that require investigation. “AMI information can feed back into GIS or work order systems to help manage maintenance crews and their priorities,” says Richards.

GIS is built into Sensus smart meters and endpoints and easily integrates with the Sensus FlexNet system, which is a long-range radio network that provides a scalable and reliable communications infrastructure. “For our customers, it is simply a matter of programming the devices with GIS information, which we offer as part of standard installation,” says Pinney. “For monitoring devices that are between endpoints, such as our acoustic leak monitoring, Sensus’s Professional Services team can help. This team can advise water utilities on deployment, how to analyze specific data, and the most cost-effective way to deploy devices in the field.”

Neptune Technology Group introduced its GIS module in late 2014. “As an AMI vendor, we use GIS-type information as part of what we do when we develop AMI solutions,” says Sala. “We also use GIS information to help support our customers within our applications. The GIS component really helps us when we are working with utilities to implement AMI.”

Sala shared a number of the benefits of the integration:

  • Leaks: Various outside factors can contribute to leaks, such as water quality and pressure. So, since Neptune meters can capture leak events at 15-minute intervals, you can overlay these leak events on a GIS map to see if there are any geographic relationships. The GIS overlay can also help coordinate any inspections that will likely result to make the most effective use of the field technician’s time. Kind of a one-two-punch
    from the GIS integration.
  • Backflow: Neptune meters can detect backflow. “Backflow can happen for some innocuous reasons, such as in a very tight home where a water heater cycles when no one is using water, pushing some water back out of the house as a result of thermal expansion,” says Sala. “That’s not too important. In other cases, though, backflow can be important, such as a major line break that hasn’t been reported yet, which is causing negative pressure upstream.” Then, when someone opens a faucet, it can create a reverse flow of water. In addition, Neptune’s radios work with acoustic leak loggers that can be installed on distribution lines. They can alert the utility of a possible distribution line leak. If these don’t happen to be lined up all on the same street, you may assume these are independent, non-related, and non-importantinstances. However, by being connected to the GIS system, it will show the lines, laterals, and entities. If you overlay the distribution, you may find that there is an actual common line, because sometimes lines don’t run down the middle of a single street. When you overlay this, the line that does connect them becomes visible, and you can see the geocoded meters that are having backflow events that are all on that same line. “This lets you know that you need to go out and begin looking for the leak that is causing all of those problems, before it blows a hole in the road or floods something,” he says. “In other words, you want to ‘roll a truck’ to do repair proactively when possible, using the AMI intelligence for your preliminary investigation.”
  • Redundancy: “There are some very sophisticated GIS-based products that help make sure there is proper communication and coverage between the meters and the collectors,” says Sala. “GIS and AMI integration can also reduce the need for certain collectors. You may find that certain networks are overbuilt, and certain devices are being read by four different collectors. This overlap happens a lot in some networks.” The utility may also find that everything being read by a certain collector is being read by at least one other collector, and thus that collector may not even be necessary.
  • DMAs: “We can create groups in our systems,” says Sala. With meters, for example, if you want to create a DMA (district metering area), one benefit of GIS is that you can see all of the points, you can see all of the inputs or outputs, and this allows you do draw a circle or polygon around all of the devices, select them all, right-click, and say “Assign to Group DMA 1.” “It is so simple,” says Sala. “Doing it the traditional way, on the other hand, is extremely complex. You would have to go into a huge list to find all of the properties, and then try to find the devices associated with the properties, then go to the billing system to try to find the accounts.”
  • Disaster Recovery: “If there are a group of meters that are all grouped together in one particular area and not being “heard”, those are pieces of information that can help you determine if you have a situation such as a collector that got struck by lightning,” he says. If this happens, the collector may not stop working, but the antenna can be damaged or the cable may get fried, causing the antenna to gain a certain amount of impedance, causing it to reduce performance. “Now you can see that coverage hasn’t gone away, but it has shrunk, which is useful information, because it will signal to you that maybe you need to check the antenna on the collector,” he says.

Addressing GIS/AMI Integration Challenges
One challenge that can exist during a GIS and AMI integration, according to Sensus’s Pinney, is inaccurate data. “You have to be sure that you’re using the system the right way and understand the data it’s producing,” he says.

Consistent training and education help to ensure that you are using the system properly. Not only is initial training vital, but it is also important to continue to stay up-to-date on best practices for properly using the system.”

Another challenge is lack of updated business processes for how to respond to the new data and alarms. “Previously, water utilities did not have the breadth of GIS, AMI, and sensor data,” says Pinney. “As a result, the existing processes and resulting actions taken were based off limited information. Now, since so much information is available, the processes need to be updated to enable efficiency.” Providers must walk through several various scenarios and determine what to do when an alarm goes off, what actions are going to be taken, and who is going to do them. According to Pinney, this challenge is outside the technology, and more in the training, business, and communication processes across the organization, ensuring that everyone understands their roles in taking advantage of the available information.

An additional challenge: “Not all AMI data may already be in the system,” says Itron’s Ball. “The utility may need to locate any missing assets in the field to make certain that the GIS has an accurate location.” The utility needs to ensure that interfaces between AMI and GIS are created, so that entering data into the AMI system properly updates the GIS system. This is especially true for utilities that are in the process of AMI implementation. A detailed testing program will need to be developed to make sure that data integration is successful. “Once the interfaces are in place and working, the key challenge is to make sure that the processes are in place to keep the system up-to-date as work orders are processed and changes are made to the system,” he says. “The most efficient utilities synchronize these systems daily.”

During any software integration project, according to Badger’s Richards, utilities should budget an appropriate amount of time for IT resources to make the systems work together. This task has been made easier with the release of Web-based software applications and the ability to transfer data using standard Web service application programming interfaces. “These allow data to be transferred in real time and eliminate the need for a user to initiate the data transfer process,” he says.

ORION cellular

Keys to Success in GIS/AMI Integration
According to Itron’s Ball, the keys to success in integrating GIS and AMI are to obtain accurate coordinates for all assets that the system is expected to manage, and have the processes in place to keep them current. To ensure that assets are properly represented in mapping, and that work orders are generated in the correct locations, the utility needs to ensure that the coordinates for each location are correct to the level of accuracy that they need. “Additionally, a utility’s network is continually adding, removing, or updating assets,” he says. “The GIS and AMI systems must have a process to keep these systems in sync, typically daily, as work orders are processed. This will ensure that the users of the system are viewing the most current and accurate information to perform their work.” There are different levels of accuracy available. It is very important to determine which level of accuracy is desired, in order to make sure that all data is available with the necessary level of detail.

“Everyone knows the adage, ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ so the first key to success is to make sure the data is accurate and that the system is robust enough to properly manage the information,” says Sensus’s Pinney. “Sometimes, when a system is designed a certain way, it pulls data from the last known location, which would be a significant distance away, and, as a result, creates errors or inefficiencies. There are a variety of reasons why you might be blocked from the satellites.” Therefore, you need to make sure that your data and the way the system is designed is robust enough to work in any condition. From there, using a combination of GIS and AMI and a variety of sensors in a smart and analytical way is the most important key to success. “Essentially, it requires using the right tool at the right time and at the right location, and then using the analytic tools to work the data for you,” he says.

“Accurate geocoding of assets and synchronization of AMI, GIS, and other systems, with one being a ‘source of truth’ for each piece of information, is key to system integrity and maintenance,” says Badger’s Richards. “Geographic data can be imported into the BEACON AMA software from other utility applications, such as the billing system or GIS via the BEACON Data Exchange interface or Web services, and AMI information can be sent back to those systems.”

When Another Agency Provides the GIS
“As regards integration of AMI and GIS, we have been working with two water utilities that have AMI,” says Frank Loge, Ph.D. P.E., professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Director of the Center for Water-Energy Efficiency at University of California–Davis ( “If you want to integrate GIS and AMI, you need to know the location of your AMI meters, which means you will need to get customer-identifiable information, which water utilities are reluctant to give out, but they will give it out under certain circumstances.” Then, according to Loge, you need the water use for each of those AMI meters for whatever time-scale they collect it on—every 15 minutes, every hour, etc. “Then you can import that into GIS and begin to create graphics of water use,” he says. “First, though, you need to aggregate the customer-identifiable information up to a level that will not allow any of the individual accounts to be identified on any of the visual images you show with GIS, such as a census block group scale or a pressure zone.”

One thing that can be useful to show, according to Loge, is, when you aggregate the AMI data on, for example, a census block basis, and look at water usage, you can determine which census blocks have higher usage than other census blocks. “This allows the water utility to decide where it should begin to target various conservation efforts,” he says.

While all of this can be done with regular water meters, the one thing specific to AMI that is useful is that, by having a time series of data on a very fine resolution, if you give that data to a customer, it allows the customer to make better decisions on how they are using their water, since they can actually see their water use. “In this [California] drought, for example, some water utilities are swapping out standard water meters for AMI water meters on their higher-use customers, and then giving the information being collected by the AMI meters to those customers,” says Loge. “They are finding that this helps these customers understand how they are using water and the make better-informed decisions on conservation.”

GIS/AMI Integration Case Study
“There is, of course, a major drought in California,” says Kapil Kulkarni, marketing supervisor for Burbank, CA Water & Power, which serves about 42,000 residential customers and 6,000 commercial customers for electricity, as well as 25,000 residential and commercial water customers. “Our goal is to reduce water consumption 28% by next year, which we call the ‘Million Gallon Challenge.’ When total water usage is about six million gallons, that is pretty significant.”

As such, the utility needed to find a way to improve water use efficiencies. “In the past, we relied on education only,” says Kulkarni. “Now, though, with the drought, we are becoming more serious. We need to identify actual excess water usage, as well as leaks.”

One way the utility is doing this is by restricting the amount of watering that can be done for outdoor irrigation. “First, we needed to find out when customers were watering, if they were watering too many days, if they were watering during the daytime when they were not supposed to, et cetera,” says Kulkarni. “If we were able to gain access to this information, then we could send out notifications to customers that they may be subject to fines.”

One tool that has been helpful to the utility has been AMI meters. “We began installing smart water meters about four years ago, and they transmit information on water usage every hour,” he says. “We installed the meters because we wanted to create more operational efficiency for the utility, and also create greater engagement with the customer, so that they could have more information about their water usage.” The AMI meters play a very important role in terms of providing very detailed information to the utility and the customer. For example, they are able to locate leaks on the customer side and inform them of this, such as if there is constant water usage during the night, such as a toilet leak. “We are also able to identify when customers are watering,” says Kulkarni.

“Our GIS system also plays a role in this,” he says. “We have a good internal GIS system that our water division uses. It allows us to see where customers are located when we find leaks that are occurring, as well as excess outdoor watering. This information then allows us to target these areas in specific for our conservation program.” 

About the Author

William Atkinson

William Atkinson specializes in topics related to utilities and infrastructure.