Accuracy and Insights

May 28, 2019
The advantages of smart meters

From water utilities serving residential and commercial customers to irrigation systems on farms, smart metering technology is offering advantages in precision and in cost-effectiveness.

In Arbon, ID, Jacob Andersen uses Lindsay Corporation’s GrowSmart flow meter in conjunction with the FieldNET wireless management tool for the irrigation needs of his farm, where he grows alfalfa and grains.

“I will never have a ‘non’ smart meter,” says Andersen. “Right now, farming is all about data, and if you want to be an efficient farmer and if you need to maximize revenue and minimize inputs, you’ve got to pay attention to data. Water is expensive. You’ve got to be tracking that.”

Andersen is required to meter his water use. “At first I was buying the regular analog meters so that water masters could go and see how much water had been consumed,” he says. “I love these GrowSmart meters. I like to do reporting on my water flow. At a basic level, I like to see how much water I’ve used for the season and see if I’m starting to go against my total allotment or whether I have plenty of water left.

“I also have a well that I’m pumping very close to its maximum capacity. It’s very helpful for me to trend over the season how the flow might change through the duration of the season to know if I need to nozzle down a little bit or if I am over-pumping the well.”

Andersen says he can track the production of the well over the span of a season or the span of years.

“There is no way I’d be able to do that without a smart meter,” he says.

Andersen incorporated smart meters two years ago. He bought two meters from the Lindsay Corporation, purchased two more last year, and plans to buy another one this year. Previously, he had used a traditional meter by the pump.

“You’d have to go over there and look at the dial to see what the flow and rate was and the amount used so far in the season,” he says. “For me, smart metering is a no-brainer, especially when you pair it with FieldNET.

“That’s what ties everything together. It’s the only way you can chart your water usage or well production over the span of years. If you’re trying to maintain the health of your well or how much water you use every year just to track expenses versus production—unless you’re out there all of the time taking notes and putting it in a database somewhere—this is the only way to do it and it’s a great way to do it. It’s hands off.”

Farmers such as Andersen are always trying to use water in the most efficient way possible, he points out.

“I can nozzle my pivots and use a low-elevation spray application. There are different ways to nozzle your pivots to try to be more efficient. But when you do that, you always wonder if your crop is suffering because you’re trying to stretch efficiency or if it’s doing just as well or doing a little bit better?

“You can always track your crop results, the bushel and acre you get to the tons per acre you get, but the missing variable is the water. How much water did you really use? A flow meter automatically tracks that for you.”

Greg Land, product manager for solid state metering for Master Meter, points out that “not even a decade ago, all utilities needed was a read in order to bill. That was more than sufficient. Then you start getting a migration to AMI—on-demand, real-time reads from move-in to move-out simplicity.”

While classic meters are still usable, for more granular data, “smart technology is the way to go,” says Land.

Both a mechanical meter and smart meter can measure accurately in a high-water-volume situation, but smart technology has advantages in picking up on pinhole leaks, says Land.

“You normally could use analytics from your AMI in order to determine if a customer may have a potential leak,” he says. “Usually everybody does their patterns and algorithms differently. You are normally looking for 24 hours of constant usage—water being used when it’s not supposed to be used. This appears to be a leak and you identify it as that.”

But in doing so, a utility staff is looking at intervals of an hour or even sometimes greater, he says.

“Because something just started and stopped is not always the best way to tell if you’ve got a leak,” says Land. “Leaks don’t stop. A leak is a leak. When you measure that kind of thing in the meter, you look for tighter intervals of water stoppage to rule out a leak and line it up with actual consumption out of a meter.”

A smart meter also can indicate if a flow pattern isn’t right for the pipe size. Case in point: “a customer using 40 GPM quite frequently on a ¾-inch line is typically burning up the meter or potentially risking water damage to the pipe. In this case, you’d want to upsize the service to a one-inch in order to provide good measurable flow. You can get that kind of data out of a smart meter because you can look for flow patterns and recognize these characteristics if the meter is programmed to look for them.”

There also is a measure of precision and sustained accuracy from a solid-state meter over a mechanical meter, “which tends to show gradual decrease in accuracy over time,” says Land. “It’s the little loss over the life of the meter that can account for thousands of gallons of missed or registered water. While there’s an initial upfront cost, you’re buying a meter not just for today, but for 15 to 20 years, and you want to ensure you’re getting the most out of your investment.”

Smart meters can offer data on potential bursts, freeze warnings, and temperature warnings, Land says.

“You can look at patterns where you notice the end-user using high volumes of water and follow that back to any break from that line,” he adds. “You get really good usable data that comes off of smart metering that you don’t get off of classic meters.”

Getting smarter data out of the water meter itself is upping the ante, he says.

“There are so many benefits on the residential and commercial side to using smart technology and pairing that with a good, smart AMI. It’s critical to get the smart data out of the metering and use it in AMI,” says Land.

“A lot of utilities have the infrastructure in place and they’re getting these hourly data dumps off of the meters and then coming back into their billing system to analyze. Why not add an extra feature to that system and give it an upgrade by going back to the water meters themselves? It only enhances the good qualities and features they already have in an upgraded product and system.”

Open architecture solutions are bringing the promise of IoT/Smart Cities to water utilities, notes Thomas Butler, director of business development for Mueller Water Products.

“In the past, utilities have installed private AMI systems to read their meters. Although this was a good investment, these private AMI systems were only capable of reading meters and performing rudimentary command and control functions,” he adds. “With open architecture/ open standards technologies such as LoRaWAN, utilities can use their networks to gather and transmit data securely from a wide variety of sensors.”

“The Mueller Systems Mi.Net system leverages LoRa technology to link meters, distribution sensors, and control devices in an efficient wireless network for real-time access,” says Butler. “This smart, migratable solution provides the ultimate in flexibility and scalability, allowing the utility to cost-effectively add advanced capabilities to fixed networks or drive-by solutions without replacing the entire system.”

A utility can make choices from drive-by AMR to high-functionality AMI to open architecture/ open standards IoT solutions, Butler adds.

Among the many advantages afforded by smart metering technology are “on-demand” meter readings, immediate activation/deactivation of remote disconnect/connect valves, email alerts and alarms based on near real-time information, and best practices in water resource management through ongoing access to customer information and data, says Butler.

Frequent turnover of customers for water utilities can present challenges, be it due to a large rental population, a university town, or seasonal residents.

Such has been the case for Charlotte County Utilities (CCU), in that they have to manually connect and disconnect water service for transient “snowbird” residents who live in Florida part-time. It had been labor-intensive and costly, given the utility’s year-round water meter inspection visits to collect on-site water usage billing data from nearly 60,000 utility customers.

To mitigate that, CCU launched a multimillion-dollar pilot program to replace 25% of its 15-year-old manual water meters with Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) meters.

Equipped with short-range radio transmitters, the AMR meters enabled drive-by water usage data collection using vehicles equipped with specialized radio receivers.

But the built-in radios in the AMR meters consistently failed after a few years in service and beyond the one-year warranty, notes Joan Brown, Charlotte County Utilities business services manager.

Instead of replacing the defective AMR meters at a cost of millions of dollars, CCU instead replaced all of its 58,000 water meters with new Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)-based water metering technology from Mueller Systems.

Unlike read-only AMR devices, AMI technology enables continuously available two-way communications between the network and metering devices, allowing accurate measurement and collection of detailed usage and billing information, demand-response capabilities, customer alerts and notifications, and remote service-connections.

CCU initially engaged IoT-based AMI networks provider Mueller Systems for a pilot project evaluating their Mi.Net AMI data-gathering system designed for water utilities.

The system wirelessly links meters, distribution sensors, and control devices for real-time access by using specialized transceivers on metering devices to gather and pass wireless data to area data-hub collectors that aggregate and upload metering data to water utility servers or hosted servers for data processing.

The successful 2012 pilot project to replace troublesome older water meters with new AMI water meters in a test area convinced the CCU to accelerate its timetable for a system-wide AMI meter changeover from 10 years to five, replacing all 58,000 water meters with the new Mi.Net network.

Seasonal residents’ water meters were also switched out for the AMI remote-connect/ disconnect water meters.

The AMI system also has a “district management” feature enabling the utility to identify mysterious water losses within a certain geographical area by installing AMI water meters at different points within the water distribution system. The AMI technology also integrates with large-scale advanced leak-detection and pipe assessment platforms.

The Mi.Net system’s command-and-control functionality and wireless connectivity enable flexible scalability for accommodating growth. The system’s real-time connectivity and two-way communications allow enhanced services and features delivered through an online customer portal, enabling users to monitor and compare water usage and billing history.

Mueller Systems maintains a specialized network operations center (NOC) staffed by technicians who monitor and maintain AMI networks for client utilities and municipalities throughout the country to ensure peak operational efficiency.

Charlotte County plans to monitor and maintain its AMI network with its own NOC in the future as a designated CCU staffer is collaborating with Mueller Systems NOC technicians to become capable of troubleshooting and rectifying system problems as they occur.

With the AMI system offering CCU a 99% meter-reading success rate, the utility has derived an average revenue gain of $400,000 per year. Estimated savings over the cost of the new AMI system are expected to reach $2 million by the seventh year of CCU’s 10-year plan and $3.6 million in year 10.

For decades, utilities have had to deal with the high operational costs of disconnecting and reconnecting water services against the challenges of cars parked over meter pits to avoid shut-offs, inaccessible backyard meters, and broken curb stops or other customer-side plumbing concerns as well as customer service and employee safety concerns.

Other challenges include having to go through a complete billing cycle, followed by a manual notification through the mail or a phone call, and a disconnect procedure after the expiration of a grace period. By Mueller estimations, many utilities disconnect an average of 5–10% of customers each year.

Mueller introduced a remote disconnect meter for the water industry in 2012—the 420 RDM—which utilizes a positive displacement metering technology that uses a nutating disc measurement chamber with a pilot/diaphragm valve within the traditional AWWA 7.5-inch lay length for 5⁄8-inch and 5⁄8-by-34-inch water meters.

The design utilizes system water pressure to allow or stop the flow of the water in the meter. After the valve is commanded to actuate, a small solenoid plunger moves, using a small amount of mechanical energy to create a pressure differential by closing or opening the pilot path to build or relieve pressure on top of the diaphragm and cause it to open or close the water flow.

Addressing the sensitive issue of a “life-sustaining” flow of water for utility customers not paying their bills, Mueller developed a “compassionate scheduling” strategy in a valve design that requires little power and can be operated thousands of times with little to no impact on battery life, enabling utilities to schedule water service to come on for a specific time period throughout the day to provide water to customers with special needs, while providing the necessary motivation for payment and limiting the amount of debt water customers can accumulate while disconnected.

Mueller’s Mi.Host software enables a utility to schedule bulk shut-offs in a way that is convenient for handling customer interactions after dealing with non-payment and alerts specific to the RDM for such events as “flow after disconnect” and the ability to quickly disconnect during a contamination event.

A mobile disconnect tool enables the utility to remotely connect/disconnect from the street without the need to access the meter box. It can be installed as part of a larger AMR system or as a targeted deployment.

Land acknowledges one of the biggest barriers to moving toward smart metering technology is “familiarity with what you know. It’s easy to stick with a compound water meter because you’ve had them for 40 to 50 years. It’s easy to stick with a PD because that’s what we’ve always used forever.”

Land encourages water utility managers to research the AWWA C715-18 standard for cold water meters, electromagnetic, and ultrasonic types for revenue applications.

“A lot of utility users and manufacturers spent the time to write a good document to find a quality meter for the industry,” says Land. “Many of us feel it’s really where the future is going to be in water metering.” 

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

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

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