Intelligent Water Management

Sept. 11, 2018

There is an old saying, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Smart management of a water supply can greatly reduce operating costs and stretch municipality operating budgets, while providing superior service. The keys to being smart, the brains of the operation, are Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) technologies and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems.

AMR is the basis of this operation. It performs the act of automatically collecting water usage data from meters measuring water consumption by various consumers. Once the data is collected, it is transmitted to a central data management system to track overall system operations, analyze patterns of water usage, and bill customers for the water they have used. AMI uses the foundation of AMR to build a comprehensive and integrated water management system. AMI includes not just the AMR smart meters, but also two-way radio communications networks, analytical software providing tabular and graphic data representation, data management and storage, as well as communication with customers. This communication is not just for billing and handling complaints. A truly advanced AMI system will help consumers effectively and efficiently use available water resources.

To fully understand how an integrated AMR/AMI system works, it is not enough for an operator to simply understand the mechanics of how they operate. An operator needs to also understand and appreciate the capabilities and accuracy limits of these systems. Furthermore, AMR/AMI must be used properly as tools to carry out an integrated water management strategy for the community. And since care, maintenance, repair, and replacement of the system components will be critical to its overall cost-effectiveness, an operator will need to understand all of these factors as well as when it makes economic sense to upgrade the system with new technology.

Economics aside, certain practical challenges have to be overcome in order to establish a fully functional smart meter data management system. The operator will have to change out existing inefficient data-based metering and record-keeping, even converting this old information into electronic data files. Not only may there be an insufficient number of meters, their exact locations may not have been adequately recorded. Existing systems may depend on multiple pieces of hardware and software, much of which may not be compatible and allow for complete system integration. Facilities for communicating directly with AMR/AMI meters may be limited in both number and quality. So, it is not just a simple matter of installing meters and running them. An operator also has to install, grow, and integrate a system. In some cases, that may require pulling out the old system by the roots and starting from scratch.

The most obvious unique feature of AMR/AMI systems is that they “talk” to you. In their own way, they can carry on lengthy, in-depth conversations relating to water use. According to the Demand Response and Advanced Metering Coalition, AMR is defined as a “system where aggregated water usage, and in some cases demand, is retrieved via an automatic means such as a drive-by vehicle or walk-by handheld system.” AMR makes this possible by collecting and transmitting water usage data. The information starts as mechanical data derived from physical measurements of water flow by the meter. This analog mechanical movement is translated into digital electronic data that is either stored temporarily in the meter or transmitted directly in real time. Transmission and downloading is performed when this digital data is transformed into a digital signal that is broadcast to a receiver. This eliminates the need for physical recording of the data by manual observations. The signal data can be transmitted by cell phone, satellite, cable, radio, or Wi-Fi. The signal data can be received by handheld, mobile, and network technologies utilizing both wireless and wired communications platforms such as transmission along a power line and radio frequency (RF) broadcast signals.

There is no shortage of the kinds of communications technologies available to smart meters. Reception and reading devices include a proximity wand or probe, hand-held computers, satellites, mobile transmitters, and fixed ground antennae. Data can be collected at intervals or can be continuously broadcast via radio. When radio is utilized, transmission is non-stop and both the meter and receiver are sending signals back and forth to each other. However, actual data transmission is one-way from the meter to the reader. More powerful radio signals can transmit over longer ranges, eliminating the need for coming anywhere near a meter to obtain its data.

AMI takes AMR to the next level. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) officially defines AMI as “a metering system that records customer consumption hourly or more frequently and that provides for daily or more frequent transmittal of measurements over a communication network to a central collection point.” AMR just reads the meter; its data is simple and straightforward. AMI is a more powerful tool for managing a water supply system, while providing flexibility and resiliency.

AMI builds on the foundation provided by AMR to expand its scope to include analysis of non-revenue water losses from leaks and other pipe failures, analyzing groundwater utilization and drawdown, providing planning for water conservation efforts, performing budgeting, allocating labor and other resources, providing transparency to customers concerning their water use data, and improving the lines of communications between all parties. Unlike AMR, AMI’s data is massive and variable, providing information across the entire service area organized by region, community, individual customer, type of usage, etc. It is not just a data collector; it is a powerful management tool, especially useful when integrated with GIS systems to provide data in geographic formats.

Smart meters, no matter how advanced, are not ends in themselves but means to an end, that end being the maximization of water use efficiency. Keeping in mind this goal will guide the water supply system operator in the placement, integration and use of smart meters throughout the supply system. And since the goal is to also save money, the use of smart meters must be performed in such a way as to save the operator cash under several different current system operations and future system growth scenarios. Using current system operations as a starting point, the operator must first understand his supply system inside and out and know what the water utility’s needs are before planning on the introduction of smart meters.

When costing the installation of smart meters, the operator should consider the overall cost of ownership (up-front capital costs and long-term operations and maintenance costs). In order to get the best deal, it pays to shop around with multiple vendors (getting references from other utilities they have worked for) while learning from the experience of other utilities that have adopted smart meters. During the initial stages, the operator should perform pilot programs serving a small part of the system with different systems to choose the right one. Once a vendor is chosen, develop a long-term relationship, as this pays dividends in the long run.

Technical characteristics to look for include double-checking the factoring and matching radio and meter numbers during installation. Understand the ins and out of properly managing the accumulated data and know which party has proprietary rights to this data. Apply this data to known information concerning the customer base (income, family size, population, building sizes, education, employment, and customer feedback). And don’t stop after the initial purchase. Continue investment in training staff and personnel in system operations and in any new technology acquired in the future.

Maximizing operational efficiency means minimizing loses (both apparent and actual) while optimizing asset management. Apparent losses are the result of several factors: blocked or defective meters, broken or worn out meters in need of repair or replacement, improperly sized meters compared to the pipe flow they are measuring. Real loses can be determined by proper monitoring of flow rates and pipe pressures. With this information, locations where losses are occurring can be easily pinpointed and repair teams can respond quickly to fix them. The data management and radio communication technology of smart meters makes this possible.

Once losses have been minimized, the operator can optimize asset management. Reducing losses allows an operator to postpone or even cancel further increases in water production with the resultant savings in capital investment costs. Adjusting operating pressure can greatly increase the operational lifetime of water supply and pump equipment. Future pipe failures can even be predicted with a reasonable degree of accuracy, allowing for the efficient forecasting of system financial needs. Real-time monitoring of operations combined with GIS systems gives an operator a true “map” of how the system is functioning, where improvements can be made, and where trouble is occurring.

Hand-in-hand with asset optimization is improving stakeholder coordination. This includes development and utilization of apps that inform water service customers about their daily consumption and send them alerts for leaks or pipe ruptures. Water quality monitoring can be provided for customers sensitive to any impurities. Operational transparency can be provided by ensuring the availability of data to end-users, with customer feedback providing the knowledge needed for new and expanded services.

At the end of the day, the life expectancy of a smart meter is directly proportional to the amount of training employees and staff get in their use. All operation and maintenance staff need thorough training on the AMR/AMI system and its components. With this information, they will be able to quickly repair or replace any system element. Testing of the new AMR/AMI units doesn’t stop with just the initial installation check. Testing of these components has to be continuous across their operational lifetimes to ensure overall system reliability. Furthermore, the operator needs to have an end of life plan for replacing meters as they age since their accuracy may diminish over time even if they are not completely broken.

It is not just the reading capability that may falter over time, operators have to keep on top of the smart meters’ radio transmission strength. This includes long term tracking of signal strength as well as odd spikes or dips in output that could signal bigger problems in the system. And not every problem will originate within the meter itself. External environmental factors (such as competing radio signals) may also cause interference.

The purchase agreement signed when obtaining the smart meters will include warranty and lifecycle information. Each part of a system, and each component of a meter, will have its own unique life expectancy, which is reflected in the warranty. But this anticipated lifetime is based on assumed operational conditions. Abuse or neglect will greatly shorten these lifetimes, while diligent service and maintenance will greatly extend them. The more frequently a meter is read, the faster the battery will be worn out—and even the best rechargeable battery will wear out over time and require replacement. Data management is a separate problem and depends on whether the meter is storing all the data itself for future downloads or transmits it directly to the utility’s server. Though it may seem strange, keeping the meter physically clean keeps its servers and data files in good order and prevents lost data.

Keeping up with technology is another major task. As this is a system designed for long-term operation, advances in metering and data management technology are bound to occur. Operators need to update their system whenever warranted by tech advances—and allowed by current budgets. This also necessitates continuous training of operations and maintenance staff so they can also keep up with new technology.

External dangers can also threaten proper meter operation. Meters are deployed in a variety of locations and subject to a wide variety of man-made and environmental factors. Location near other types of piping (such as gas lines) may result in the accumulation of explosive gases. So, the circuitry of the meter (which can run hot) must be sealed off. Completely sealing off a meter housing can make it impossible to change out a battery. In this instance, the overall lifetime of the meter is determined by the number of times its internal battery can be recharged without wearing out.

So how long, on average, do smart water meters last? That depends on the unit and its operating environment. A unidirectional unit can last on average 15 or more years, with an upper limit of about 25 years. A bidirectional unit, with its greater power needs and work load, will last for a much shorter time depending on the number and frequency of data requests it receives. Use of bidirectional units increases overall operating efficiency at the price of increased costs of ownership. The need to use peripheral equipment (sensors, pressure transducers, etc.) will further shorten battery life. Replacement costs for AMR/AMI equipment can be about $50 for parts and another $80 for labor. With local mark ups, replacing a small smart meter can run up to $200 each.

There is an inherent trade-off in smart meter design and operation. That is to say, more functionality requires more power. The more capability the meter has, the shorter its lifetime. Reducing the meter’s operational requirements results in longer life. This translates into lower cost but also lowered usefulness. A good compromise may be limiting the recording of water flows to 15-minute intervals with data transmitted for 5-minute intervals. In doing so, the most important information is made available and the battery life can be made roughly equivalent to the lifetime of the other meter components (15 years or more). Additional capabilities can be provided if desired by external add-ons. Once installed, smart meters are effectively computers. Computers are fragile; they have to be securely protected and properly maintained beyond their typical 5-year to 7-year lifespan. The key to maintaining the overall smart grid environment is to preserve the functionality of these shorter-lived components.

Badger Meter’s BEACON AMA solution features a
powerful user engagement tool called EyeOnWater.

Kamstrup is a provider of fixed network solutions that consist of only a few components to read meters remotely and optimize the distribution network. In doing so, Kamstrup AMI systems offer effective solutions for remote reading of smart water meters, allowing for fast and easy access to consumption data and the system by providing tools for analyzing and optimizing water distribution networks. Kamstrup’s water meter reading technology can be used for both drive-by meter reading (AMR) or remote reading via a radio network without leaving the utility (AMI). Their system is modular, offering standardized components that can fit together in a variety of ways. Both the AMR and AMI components are designed for simple installation and commissioning. In addition to providing advanced hardware, their software and data management systems allow for easy documentation of meter exchange. This eliminates the possibility of human error and ensures correct data handling and very secure data storage with their Meter Exchange module. The operator can easily and efficiently store historical data, important notes, and pictures related to a specific meter exchange in READy Manager, greatly reducing an operator’s work load.

The Kamstrup AMI meter-reading system eliminates the need for manual reading and estimated calculations. With the use of one or more fixed data collectors in a supply area, the meters can be read remotely from the utility and the readings are automatically available in READy Manager. Simplicity and practicality are built into the system’s design, with only two components making up their AMI system: the data collector and the flowIQ meter. A simple to install data collector consists of one or two antennas, a top box, and a base station (or box). Kamstrup even allows users to “test drive” their metering systems, checking which meters a concentrator can read prior to purchase. Both their AMR and AMI systems use meter data in their MDM software READy Manager. READy Manager supports many different data formats and offers flexible import and export of data. READy Manager offers a broad range of tools designed for modern utilities that provide an overview of, and easy utilization of, water meter data. It allows for increases in reading intervals to provide additional data at key metering locations. Data from multiple meters can be grouped together (based on either geography or types of customers) in READy Manager to provide an overview of system consumption. This includes an overview of water losses and pressure distributions within the distribution network. A new feature, READy App, allows an operator to read logged data and update meters with new settings from the roadside on a smartphone.

For 50 years Neptune Technology Group has been a pioneer in the development of AMR and AMI technologies. Connectivity is provided by their R900 MIU, the MACH 10 solid state ultrasonic water meter without moving parts to ensure both accuracy and long-term performance, and the L900 MIU. This last bit of hardware is the first LoRa Alliance certified solution for wide-area AMI networks. System accuracy is ensured by high resolution measurement for accuracy even when measuring very low flow rates. Minimal maintenance needs translate into steady accuracy, lower costs, and dispense with the need for a special test mode for bench testing. Their Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) approach combining the LoRa and 4G LTE cellular technologies eliminates the need for maintenance. This greatly reduces associated AMI infrastructure costs and subsequent labor costs. The system allows for remote reading from utilities platforms (walk-by, drive-by, or fixed network). Together Neptune’s systems offer a “meter-to-bank” solution where Neptune acts as an integrated supplier providing all aspects of water metering (meters, AMR and AMI communications, installation, operation, maintenance, meter reading, customer billing, public communications, and customer service).

Trimble Water is an industry leader in handheld computers and software for meter reading, asset management, and installation. Their smart metering technology solutions combine Trimble Unity software and Trimble mobile devices to provide configurable and intelligent GIS-centered systems. They allow operators to plan, manage, and dispatch meter installation jobs. Trimble field techs using a mobile app on a mobile device can accurately locate meter change-out or installation jobs, get driving directions and optimized routes, use intelligent installation, meter change-out and inspection forms and workflows, take photos, scan barcodes, record material, equipment and labor usage, and capture accurate GPS positions. Trimble mobile devices include the Trimble Ranger 3, Trimble Nomad, Trimble Juno, or Trimble TDC100. They provide a complete hardware suite for the full range of metering operations. Trimble meters are streamlined to allow for easy meter installation and change out operations. Their integrated AMI/AMR communications systems utilize a single hand-held device with onboard AMI/AMR radios. Their accurate, real-time data provides definitive information to customers to ensure accurate and up to date billing and generally improved customer service.

Since 1905, Badger Meter has been producing accurate and reliable water meters and control and communications devices. Currently, they produce mechanical, electronic, and ultrasonic water meters; advanced meter reading technologies; and software analytics solutions for both public and private water customers. In the field of AMR applications, they provide a managed solution, called BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA). The BEACON AMA solution combines a robust software suite with Badger Meter’s ORION Fixed Network (SE) or ORION Cellular endpoint communication technologies. Therefore, the BEACON AMA managed solution can be easily implemented alongside fixed network data collection systems or with ORION cellular endpoints added for remote or hard-to-read locations. The ORION endpoints offer an operator access to comprehensive meter reading combined with two-way communications technologies. As an extra feature, BEACON AMA also offers the EyeOnWater consumer engagement tools. This smartphone and computer application allows water customers to access their own water usage data and gives them tools to more efficiently understand their water consumption and better utilize this precious resource.

About the Author

Daniel P. Duffy

Daniel P. Duffy, P.E., writes frequently on the topics of landfills and the environment.