Turning Data into Dollars

Jan. 23, 2019

Aging infrastructure, an aging workforce that necessitates pension payouts, and regulatory changes are driving factors in water utilities’ quest to turn data from metering into revenue for their operations’ bottom line.

“Turning data into dollars involves more than just the traditional meter-to-cash process,” notes Henrique Gustavo da Costa, director, business development at Itron. “With detailed meter data from an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system, utilities can gain more visibility into their distribution system, decrease waste and increase revenues.”

He cites several examples of how AMI can help improve revenue:

  • Leak and theft technology alerts the utility that water consumption being monitored may be falsely reported, helping the utility act quickly and ensure its assets are being used correctly and revenue is protected.
  • Meter right-sizing: utilities can perform detailed analyses to ensure single meters are the right size and determine if the meter is over- or underutilized, allowing utilities to optimize asset utilization and billable flow through the meter. “Because AMI technology captures customer profiles, including consumption, it can track more accurately if the meter is the correct size,” says Gustavo da Costa. “For instance, a car wash requires a larger water meter because of the large amount of water used and a single-dwelling requires a much smaller meter.”
  • Backflow detection: a backflow alarm allows utilities to increase revenue as it alerts utilities that a meter was installed in a wrong direction and doesn’t measure usage correctly. The water utility can be aware after one reading cycle, providing a correct measurement and avoiding customer claims, says Gustavo da Costa.

“By utilizing this combination of features presented by AMI, utilities are able to monitor usage and predict how they can better serve their customers in a way that produces increased revenue.”

In Lakewood, CA, the city’s water utility adapted FATHOM’s Smart Grid for Water to address several issues—prime among them, aging water meters and the retirement of some employees.

FATHOM’s Smart Grid for Water solution is designed to address infrastructure, services, software, and community information sharing.

FATHOM’s Smart Grid infrastructure conversion package combines a smart meter installation with data infrastructure starting with a revenue assurance analysis to ensure that the data within the systems is correct and complete.

An Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is implemented. Geospatial meter location and photo documentation is conducted.

The FATHOM Smart Grid for Water software platform is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution that includes applications such as a head end system, meter data management, a customer portal, a customer information system, asset management, and business intelligence.

FATHOM Smart Grid for Water also includes utility expertise and managed services, including utility billing, customer care, local payment, asset/work order management, warranty management, and revenue assurance.

A fourth part of the FATHOM Smart Grid for Water is FATHOM’s community of utilities that share best practices, network, and support each other in continuous operational improvement.

In Lakewood, a bedroom community with a population of 80,000, the city-owned water system serves 60,000 through 20,000 meters, to primarily single family homes and some commercial and institutional water system customers. The remainder of the city is served by Golden State Water Company. The last time Lakewood engaged in a meter project was 25 years ago and those meters were getting to the stage where they had to be replaced, says Jason Wen, department of water resources director for Lakewood. Wen notes it was time for the city to move forward with another water infrastructure project and an examination of available technologies was conducted, with the decision to adopt FATHOM.

Another driver was the repetitive work of reading meters; it was only a matter of time before manual meter reading would be replaced by technology, Wen notes. An AMR program had been piloted prior to instituting an AMI project.

“As a city water purveyor, we have a lot of retirement pension responsibilities and, long term, would have been better off replacing labor with technology,” he says, adding that the staffing numbers were reduced accordingly after people retired.

Lakewood’s water utility is a “well-run system” with typical accounted-for water losses of 5 to 6%, says Wen. In leveraging the FATHOM system for its leak detection benefits, the capture of leak information has been significant for customers, he adds.

Within a few months of a complete four-month overhaul of the city water utility’s metering system in 2018, some 20,000 leaks were identified on the customer side.

“There may be other water losses we don’t even know about that don’t even go through the register. They’re small. We’re still learning,” says Wen.

Lakewood water utility customers are enthusiastically using the FATHOM customer portal, says Wen. Notices about its availability were mailed with the water bill. The utility offered classes on its use.

“Customers are excited because they like to have control,” says Wen, adding that in the first month of implementation, there was an average of 100 registrations daily, with more than 22% of customers registered within a few months.

“With the portal, the system is better and more efficient,” says Wen.

The city utility sends out leak alerts and customers appreciate the warning, he says.

“People used to call customer service only when they had problems,” says Wen. “We get very few of those calls now. Now we see positive feedback when we reach out to the customer and tell them they have a problem.”

The AMI installation offers the city the option to go to monthly billing from its current bi-monthly billing system, the pros and cons of which the city’s water utility will examine before making a decision, Wen says.

Credit: ITRON
With detailed meter data, utilities gain system visibility that can improve revenues.

Wen says since a full implementation of the system has been relatively recent, it’s still too early to tell how the data is affecting revenues.

“On the leak side of the data and analytics, we can tell it’s very exciting,” he says. “We’ve got information we never had, so we’re able to do a lot of things we were not able to do before because the data was not there.”

Lakewood is also using FATHOM’s asset management function to take a surgical look at its infrastructure in terms of its water supply and assets. The city also is using Echologics’ acoustic leak detection sensors to actively monitor small leaks that could transition to big problems, says Wen.

“We’re also trying to monitor the demand and supply balance and pressure distribution to try to get a sense of the pipeline condition and assess the priorities and which section should be replaced first. We’re also looking at approach from an AI company to use algorithms to calculate potential leaks in the pipe sequence.”

Jason Bethke, president and chief growth officer for FATHOM, says a discussion on metering projects “needs to extend the view to include the utility billing side of the house. The bulk of the revenue that’s being created is in the culmination of the metering projects with the customer information system or the utility billing delivery. Doing these projects together, we got the revenue to increase at the same time you get the benefits of conservation.”

Another key discussion is “product versus service,” notes Bethke. “Lots of communities out there are buying meters and software products, trying to get the integrations done and tie across their whole enterprise,” he says. “That’s a massive undertaking for the utilities.

“We’re seeing the emergence of a lot more service-based deliveries around both meters as well as utility billing solutions. The service mentality is going to transfer the risk off of the cities and allow them to adopt the technology must faster and get better results from the outcome.”

Community engagement practices ensure that municipal water services are not only in sync with neighbor cities, but in sync with residents, proactively communicating with them to ensure they have a positive experience, and are leveraging technology resources to streamline water utility operations and billing overall, Bethke points out.

“Service is how more of these utilities are going to adopt that technology because they can contract for outcomes or results as opposed to providing different products and integrating them. They can run them flawlessly to get those benefits.”

Bethke says water rates are rising three to five times the inflation rate nationwide to account for the issues facing water utilities in the areas of infrastructure, an aging workforce, and regulatory concerns.

“If you don’t give information to customers so they can control their usage and ultimately control their bill, then you wind up with affordability concerns and that’s not a great experience for any community,” he says.

FATHOM’s Smart Grid for Water packaged solution is designed to allow a community to buy it as a service to ensure the affordability of water going forward, says Bethke.

“Now they have all of that data and they get to work with other communities on benchmarking and comparing how they’re doing against their other communities,” he says. “That drives those efficiencies into the utilities. That’s what it’s going to take to keep the water rates low.

“The trick for us as an industry is to figure out exactly what those particular value propositions are in the data to drive those quick wins on the financial side. One of the areas we found is that gap analysis between what is actually out in the field—what the meters are reading—and what is actually in the billing system.

“It’s amazing how big a gap there is and how much revenue can be leaking through those systems so when you go fix that gap and bill customers their fair share, you can increase revenue in the utility beyond a more accurate, faster spinning meter.”

Customers are getting surprised by higher bills as old meters are replaced, notes Bethke.

“We can do a better job of communicating that out to customers as to why they’re paying what they’re paying for, but also a lot of the value from those data systems actually occurs in the utility billing system,” he says.

“You have better data in the metering and now you can manage your accounts receivable in a different way, which allows you to reduce bad debt. Those projects of AMI and CIS that have historically been decoupled need to be recoupled under this idea of Smart Grid for Water. That is the actual project the utilities should be deploying as one thing because the amount of benefit that comes out of doing both of those things at the same time is significant.”

By installing new water meters and adopting an advanced metering infrastructure from Sensus, Fairmont, WV, water utility has been able to reduce excess water usage by 25 million gallons per year.

That’s critical for this college town, as the demand on Fairmont’s water utility resources fluctuates with a residential turnover of Fairmont State University students moving in and out.

Mark Moore, utility controller, points out that with the many rental properties and apartments to serve, there is “a lot to manage in terms of monitoring customer usage and handling inactive accounts.”

The process for reading meters and managing customer billing grew inefficient, with the metering system requiring City of Fairmont Utilities technicians to walk or drive by each of its 14,500 water meters for readings, tracking them with a handheld device for billing.

Since meters could only be read occasionally, there was the potential for leaks or undetected water use to run for weeks.

The city put into action a smart water solution plan that would reduce human error and estimation in meter readings, enhance leak detection efforts, monitor unconventional and/or inactive accounts, empower customers to view their usage and identify issues in real time, and aid in budgeting for water conservation and cost savings.

In conjunction with the West Virginia Public Service Commission, the utility chose to completely upgrade to a Sensus AMI solution to tackle the issue of non-revenue water and better meet customer needs.

“With AMI, we knew we’d be able to get information from our meters in a timely way,” says David Sago, utility manager. “The solution would allow the utility to dramatically improve our efforts to derive revenue from the water we were delivering while also taking boots off the ground and devoting those resources to other important functions.”

Fairmont Utilities worked with a distributor partner to install 6,500 Sensus water meters throughout its two largest routes along with commercial meters with the goal of rolling out the full solution over a five-year period.

Since the return on investment came quicker than anticipated, the utility shortened the implementation time frame by installing the remaining meters immediately.

The solution included 14,500 Sensus iPERL residential meters. The meters are designed for low-flow accuracy and high-flow durability, using magnetic technology to capture previously unmeasured low flow. The lead-free meters have no moving parts and are designed to maintain accuracy over a 20-year period. The meters have AMI connectivity and 14 condition, diagnostic, and lifetime alarms.

The meters are designed to reduce non-revenue water by measuring flow rates as low as 0.1–0.3 GPM and also detect system leaks. They can be installed horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

The meters allow remote management, monitoring, and diagnosis. They collect and log system and customer data and are designed to preserve energy and optimize power.

The utility also installed 200 OMNI Compound (C²) and OMNI Turbo (T²) commercial meters.

The OMNI C² water meters are designed to improve accuracy ranges in schools, hospitals, retail centers, and similar settings. The meters have a continuous operating range and a wide flow range.

The OMNI C² features floating ball technology (FBT) for optimal measurement performance. FBT uses an impeller with a ball design. The impeller is weightless in the water line and can begin moving with very little water flow or force through the meters, providing an extended flow range with greater low-flow sensitivity. The meters also have the ability to capture extended high flow rates.

The OMNI C²S is a stainless steel version and is offered in 1.5-inch, 2-inch, and 3-inch sizes.

OMNI T² water meters are designed for similar commercial and institutional applications. The meters have a continuous operating range. They are made of epoxy-coated ductile iron and are available in 1.5-inch to 10-inch sizes.

The meters also use FBT technology. The OMNI T²S is a stainless steel version of the T² model and comes in 1.5-inch, 2-inch, and 3-inch sizes.

The utility also deployed Sensus FieldLogic and Regional Network Interface software delivered through the Sensus SaaS platform.

The FieldLogic Software Suite is designed to simplify programming and reading endpoints for field personnel. The suite consists of FieldLogic Hub and two FieldLogic Tools applications: FieldLogic Connect and FieldLogic Read.

FieldLogic Hub is a PC-based application managing handheld devices used for programming or reading FlexNet or RadioRead endpoints.

The Hub tool loads utility-defined information packages that control handheld functionality and reduce the time required for field personnel to perform tasks. It also helps end users manage reading routes and load them onto hand-held devices. After collecting readings, Hub exports information to the billing system.

FieldLogic Connect is an application that communicates with and programs endpoints. It uses preconfigured settings to simplify installation and eliminate guesswork. On-board route management files capture endpoint details to ensure data integrity. The Connect tool also can deactivate devices and troubleshoot endpoints and meters.

FieldLogic Read software collects meter reading data from endpoints and alerts field personnel when alarms need investigation. The Read tool supports multiple communications protocols. By simultaneously reading FlexNet and RadioRead technologies, field personnel don’t need to carry multiple devices.

A magnetic flow meter from Lindsay

The Sensus SaaS platform features include around-the-clock system monitoring, security testing and auditing, and disaster recovery.

The FlexNet communications network and Sensus Analytics are also part of the solution that enabled Fairmont to remotely monitor water usage and increase billing accuracy.

Upon launch, City of Fairmont Utilities employees noted approximately 15% of its old meters were failing to provide accurate readings and multiple meter pit locations needed renewal.

“It used to be an exhaustive process for staff to track and evaluate our meters across the five counties we serve,” says Moore. “The Sensus AMI solution took care of this immediately, allowing us to virtually track and monitor metering performance in even our most rural locations.”

Since its launch, the utility has achieved more than 99% accuracy in its meter readings, while saving $30,000 annually by reducing non-revenue water, improving billing accuracy, and enhancing overall system performance.

The utility also has been able to notify nearly 3,000 customers of leaks or issues with continuous usage since deployment, helping them reduce excess water consumption by an average of 25 million gallons annually.

“With time saved on meter readings and billing, we’ve diverted those staff resources to an ongoing data and meter testing program,” adds Sago. “This initiative will help us ensure accuracy and great customer service for years to come.”

Micaela Estrada, revenue collections supervisor for Gonzales Utilities in Gonzales, TX, often had to take work home to do re-reads on meters either because of multiple failures on meters or human error.

Three years following the March 2015 installation of a 1,100-meter Kamstrup system, Gonzales’ water utility officials noted a 10.3% revenue increase on the meters, yielding a 2.5-year return on investment.

Revenue loss was one of the driving factors, notes Tracy Irwin, president of Secure Vision of America, which provided the meters.

Gonzales Utilities services 3,000 water accounts for a population of about 9,000. Many of the community’s water meters were “dead” and not being caught in the readings, notes Estrada.

Estrada says there had been times where she would have about 150 pages worth of re-reads, adding some of it is attributable to human error. When the town’s water loss audit report was showing a difference between the amount of water being produced and the amount being billed, Estrada says she didn’t know what was underscoring that.

“It’s been a big impact for our water loss audit,” notes Estrada of the Kamstrup meters.

The Kamstrup meters have alleviated the work involved in reading the meters, says Estrada of her crew and herself. “Now I pick up the reading with a tablet,” she says. “I’m able to input the numbers with no human errors. It’s cut my work in half. I can fit it into eight-hour re-reads. I have about 75 pages.”

After the initial meter installation, many customers noted a slight increase in their bill, says Estrada.

“We advertised it. We put it in the paper. We took it to city council at a public hearing. We let everybody know that was something that was going to come. Technology is always changing and we’ve been pretty much behind. We’re trying to catch up with everybody else.”

Two-thirds of the water meters still need to be replaced to get the revenues right, says Estrada. “We are looking to hopefully get that completed—if not to get started—at least at the beginning of 2019 with an upcoming project to be completed. We’re trying to stay with Kamstrup because we’ve never had any issues with them. It’s an awesome system. I love it. The guys on the crew love it.”

Gonzales Utilities crews do drive-by radio reads on an older meter system which had not been picking up all of the data, says Estrada, adding that the Meter Transceiver Unit may not be connected, the meter may be under the ground, or it may be water-logged.

“We also do manual reads where the guys go out with their handhelds and read whatever the drive-by doesn’t pick up,” she says. “That’s where most of my 75 to 80 pages of re-reads are coming from. Ninety-nine percent of those are going to be water meters that I need to get swapped out.”

Gonzales Utilities uses READy, Kamstrup’s AMR system that uses a smartphone or tablet as the meter reading device and uses Google Maps to show meter locations. Meter readers can drive by to read meters and send the readings to the billing department from the field.

The utility also uses H2O Analytics, a software package designed to help water utilities better manage their systems by pulling data from multiple sources including GIS, metering, utility billing, customer service systems, SCADA, leak detection systems, and public sources such as county auditor property records, National Weather Service, and others.

The data can be analyzed together to provide detailed useful information for water loss management, conservation, and customer communication.

“Our main concern is that we have the correct revenue—that we are collecting all of the revenue we should be collecting, not have any water loss anywhere, and are able to get that turned into the state correctly and charge everybody for what they are using,” says Estrada.

“With Kamstrup meters, we are able to get every single drop of water instead of our older meters which once you use so many gallons, then it finally moves. We’re able to see if somebody is tampering with a meter, if they’re stealing water, if there’s a meter out in the country that’s not supposed to be on but it’s registering because somebody is using it.”

Estrada adds the Kamstrup meters are significantly helping in terms of accountability in water theft situations. She cites one instance where water was being stolen for two years before the case came to light.

“I was able to backdate it on the old meter I had my read from when it got turned off two years ago,” she says. Now, she and other crew members can detect activity and capture it.

FieldNet is a wireless management tool that
enables remote irrigation control and monitoring.

“I need to find out who’s been using that water so we go back to the property owner,” she adds. “Our main concern is revenue and accountability, making sure we’re capturing everything we have out there, providing good service for all of our customers and providing the correct read—not me forgetting to put one in and transposing the number. It’s less human error when you can get all of that done with a computer instead of having to manually punch it in.”

Addressing non-revenue water loss and aging meter infrastructure is the focus of technology offered by Neptune. While the company manufactures, sells, implements, and installs metering systems—including meters, radios, and communication network software—it also has a partner program that enables other types of devices to be hung off of its communication network.

“It can be a real challenge for utilities to leverage all of the data from an AMI system that includes data from leak, pressure, and other sensors in addition to consumption data from the meter,” says Chuck Brunson, vice president of marketing at Neptune.

To that end, Neptune offers the Neptune 360 data management platform, a head-in system designed to help utilities make faster, more informed decisions.

The cloud-based system is designed to be intuitive and user-friendly, offering data to help maximize operational efficiencies from any device providing internet browsers.

The Software-as-a-Service solution is monitored at all times, operating from a data center to provide high security levels, redundancy, and disaster recovery services. Uploading data on-demand from the field or office is designed to provide more efficient customer service.

“Utility personnel can access the data from their system from any connected device anytime, anywhere,” says Brunson. “This allows them to stay informed relative to what’s going on with their distribution network and make informed decisions to ensure quality of service.”

The system can capture readings 24 hours a day.

“This detailed consumption data helps utilities deal with high water bill complaints,” says Brunson. “They can help a customer resolve the issue before it becomes a major financial burden—and reduces potential write-offs.”

With the real-time data, a water utility can proactively reach out to the customer to let them know they have a leak that needs to be identified.

“An outside faucet may be running, or a lawn irrigation system valve may be broken. Utilities can help their customers know that something is going on and the customer can take action before they receive a very large water bill,” says Brunson.

The information can be delivered via email or through a customer portal set up by the utility.

“Utilities can leverage Neptune 360 to send their customers email that includes a graph and an explanation of the identified water consumption abnormality,” says Brunson. “Taking this a step further, if a utility sets up a customer engagement portal, their customers can set up notification alerts based on either consumption or their anticipated water budget for the month just like a cell phone company lets customers know they’ve used most of their data plan.

“A customer can then review their water usage directly on the portal and take action themselves to address a leak or faulty valve without ever having to involve a utility customer service representative, saving the utility time and money.”

Non-revenue water loss is another concern for utilities in many parts of the country, Brunson points out.

For water loss programs, Neptune can hang partners’ pressure monitors and acoustic leak detectors off of its system, bring the data back into Neptune 360, and analyze it in an effort to identify and stop leaks.

Tying flow meters into an irrigation monitoring and management program can heighten agricultural efficiencies.

“Reducing water loss in the distribution network can help utilities avoid having to increase production,” says Brunson. “The need to expand a water treatment plant or bring online another ground well can be postponed.”

Another function utilities can perform using Neptune 360 is mapping out their water meters.

“Utilities can have a clearer view of what’s going on in their network if it’s all laid out on a map view,” says Brunson. “This facilitates understanding of potential main breaks or other problems.

“Utilities also can use GIS data to help identify other sources of non-revenue water such as unmetered parcels,” he adds. “The map function can help identify lots that don’t have meters associated with them perhaps because an account was never set up. One way utilities can identify a lot of lost revenue is finding these locations that are un-metered.”

Neptune’s suite of APIs can be used by utilities to extract data from the system.

“Neptune 360 facilitates sharing data beyond just customer service and billing,” says Brunson. “Consumption data can be shared and sent to hydraulic modeling applications to enhance accuracy of demand data. Utilities can easily and accurately compare water produced and pumped versus how much water was billed on a daily basis.

“Identified leaks or backflow data can be shared with work order systems, shortening the lead time to send a crew in the field to address a problem with the distribution network.”

Using new business analytics and intelligence tools, utilities can look for abnormal patterns of usage, and identify possible water theft, Brunson adds.

“Managers can have utility personnel go and check based on some confidence that theft is occurring. Water theft is a bigger issue than the public realizes. If a utility can identify a little bit of un-metered water, it can have a huge financial impact,” he adds.

Water management and conservation is an ever-increasing concern for agricultural growers as well as water utilities.

Lindsay Corporation’s IM3000 Magnetic Flow Meters are used by semi-governmental companies pumping water from rivers and distributing it through canals to sell to farmers who don’t have enough groundwater, notes Josh Egan, Lindsay FieldNET specialist in the Northwest US.

“Accurate metering leads to accurate billing,” points out Egan, adding there are areas throughout the US where water districts are mandating the use of flow meters.

Case in point: Egan cites an article in Idaho’s Capital Press, which reports that the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) sent curtailment orders in July to 36 users diverting groundwater from the East Snake Plain Aquifer in the state’s south-central region.

The order instructed water masters to shut off diversions from groundwater wells in early August for not installing department-approved flow meters by the start of the 2018 irrigation season.

It was required by a 2015 settlement among groundwater users and a coalition of surface water users in south-central Idaho as well as a 2016 order by the IDWR director saying the approximately 5,500 affected groundwater users must comply by early 2018.

“Where flowmeters are mandated, canal companies can now properly manage and allocate the optimal amount of water given to customers at a higher rate of accuracy,” says Egan.

“This can be of benefit to the canal company as a whole and can create a very level and fair playing field for all of the customers within the canal company. Also, the grower is only charged for the water used at the pump head and not for any other water that was wasted due to canal leaks, evaporation, and other factors.”

With no moving parts, Lindsay’s Growsmart IM3000 Magnetic Flow Meter is designed to save time, water, energy, and money. The magnetic flow meter will not be affected by debris, says Egan. Other features include an IP68 enclosure seal, no flow obstruction, range of sizes, a required minimal straight pipe run, remote management capabilities with FieldNET, and an optional battery pack.

FieldNet is a fully integrated wireless management tool that enables remote control of an entire irrigation operation, including pivots, laterals, end-guns, drip systems, pumps, injectors, and sensors.

The tool can be used to create variable rate irrigation (VRI) plans, receive real-time alerts and status updates, and run customized or templated reports.

Egan says tying flow meters into Linsday’s FieldNet system derives the benefit of real-time information on an irrigation system’s performance, enabling irrigators to take proactive measures.

“For example, total design irrigation water usage may be one number. If the actual meter shows on FieldNET that it is less than or greater than that number, then it could mean there is a bad sprinkler/nozzle, an end-gun isn’t working, there’s a break in the mainline, pump cavitation, pump failing, or other factors,” he says.

A few examples of instantaneous flow readings:

  • High when filling the main line at initial startup, but pressure drops and flow drops once pipe is full. This indicates the pump could be wearing out and can’t maintain pressure or flow when main line is full.
  • Sporadic after the system has pressured up indicates the well could be cavitating in that the water level in the well has dropped.
  • Higher than sprinkler-designed estimation indicates main line could be broken or damaged, sprinkler broken or damaged, nozzles are wearing out and need to be replaced.
  • Lower than sprinkler designed estimation indicates sprinkler/nozzles may be plugged.
“Having a flowmeter tied into FieldNET also can provide valuable and more accurate online reports of how much water was actually put down on a given field,” says Egan. “This information can allow the grower to better understand soil moisture ratios on their crop and will more accurately aid our FieldNET Advisor tool, which creates customized irrigation recommendations for a field in determining soil moisture levels everywhere in their field.”
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.