Water Utilities Begin the Shift to Advanced Metering Infrastructure

Almost 5 million automatic meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) units were shipped to North American water utilities in 2007 ...

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by Don Schlenger

Almost 5 million automatic meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) units were shipped to North American water utilities in 2007, a 21% increase over the number shipped in the previous year, based on data recently compiled by the 2008 Scott Report on AMR.

Based on shipments in the first quarter, a projection of shipments in 2008 indicates a 5% increase in the number shipped, evening out the significant growth rate in 2007. (Because advanced metering projects tend to involve multi-year deployments, variations from one quarter to the next may not be significant.)

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The number of units shipped per year continues to grow; over the period 1997-2008, the compounded annual growth rate was about 17.5%, compared to a 1.4% compounded annual growth rate for utilities (electric, gas and water) overall. Based on this growth rate, the Scott Report projects that more than 8 million units per year will be shipped to North American water utilities by 2012. There are now more than 28 million units deployed among water utilities. By 2012, that number is likely to be over 50 million. More than 40% of all water meters in North America are currently being read by advanced metering technology.

The level of activity in the water industry easily supports these projections. Major cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Kansas City are in the throes of installation, while large water utilities like New York, Toronto, Dallas and San Francisco are in the procurement process. There are literally hundreds of smaller projects underway.

Droughts in parts of the American west and southeast, decreasing per capita consumption, and a keen interest in maximizing the life of distribution assets have spurred interest among water utilities in managing demand, capturing all revenue and minimizing distribution system water losses. They are looking at their metering systems as the tools to do this.

While there has been recent strong demand for mobile AMR systems, many utilities have focused on fixed systems. This is due partly to recognition by utilities that a fixed metering will ultimately provide greater capabilities and potential service enhancements, and partly to the competitive efforts of vendors, who are marketing the AMI products that have been rolled out in the electric industry. Relatively new fixed systems incorporating licensed frequencies or mesh networks have attractive capabilities, and are challenging existing price points.

Copying the electric industry's demand management "model," water utilities are increasingly interested in hourly or even more frequent meter readings, as well as other capabilities. In some cases, they want time-synchronized readings. (Unlike electric utilities, water distribution systems are not designed for instantaneous peaks, so the benefits of "on the hour" data over "within the half-hour" are probably marginal.)

With this kind of data, AMI systems need to incorporate meter data management systems, databases that store all consumption information for every customer, and sometimes include report generators and analytical tools to enable the utility or its customers to identify problems (leaks, tampering) and analyze consumption patterns.

Water utilities are seeking advanced capabilities in current requests for proposals, such as:

Backflow Detection

An AMI system can provide information about backflow at the meter. Backflow might be due to a pressure drop in the distribution system (e.g., from a main break or heavy use of a fire hydrant) or an increase in pressure on the customer side. For instance, the customer might have a secondary source of water such as a well. The result is water in the customer service plumbing flows back into the public water system, a concern for water system security.

Another potential source of reverse flow is tampering with the meter by turning the meter backwards. This is of concern, since with AMI physical inspection of the meter would be infrequent.

Advanced metering systems have the ability to detect backflow to varying degrees of precision, using some combination of the water meter, the transmitter and software tools. A simple AMR system can detect when a meter read is lower than a prior reading, which might represent backflow or tampering. The more frequently the meter is read, the greater the ability of the system to detect small backflow events (for example, a backflow of several gallons, which is likely to be "erased" by subsequent consumption). The resolution of the data coming from the meter and the frequency at which this data is collected are also important.

Some meters, such as the Neptune E-coder, and meters from Master Meter and Actaris, can provide backflow information with high sensitivity, and multiple levels (low or high) of alert. Backflow flags can be set and stored. Some AMI systems can provide an almost immediate alarm to the utility or designated recipient, allowing the user to know about when the event occurred and for how long before it stopped.

Backflow monitoring may indicate a compromise in the integrity of the system, which might require disinfection and boil water orders. In light of security concerns for water systems, the ability to detect an event where large and extended flows of unknown quality are obvious. Backflow detection could be a big help in monitoring for tampering and theft of service.

Remote Controlled Service Line Valves

Several firms have introduced or are developing service line shut-off valves controlled through the AMI system. This innovative technology has significant potential for isolating customers during main repair or replacement, emergency shutoffs in lieu of accessing other valves in the customer's premises, seasonal customers, sub-metering situations (e.g., apartment units), customer turnover and vacancies, and delinquency enforcement.

In the case of property sale or seasonal use, some utilities require taking a metering reading and shutting off the service. Ideally, an AMI system could do both from the office. (A visit to turn on the water would still probably be required.)

Shut-off valves are especially attractive to utility enforcement staff, reducing employee risk, and providing quicker response to delinquency situations and restoration when the customer pays.

Some valves feature a partial flow setting, to allow a minimum amount of water for essential purposes only.

Shut-off valves present many considerations, including installation cost, since they may have to be cut in to the service line. They might also be subject to tampering or replacement with straight pipe. Lack of inspection for open valves or faulty plumbing in the customer's premises might create liability for the water utility. Installation on the customer's plumbing inside might require regulatory or ordinance changes, although utilities sometimes own the valves on either side of the meter. The valve must be connected securely to the AMI transmitter/receiver, unless it has its own internal transmitter/receiver.

AMI and Conservation

AMI based consumption data has tremendous potential to augment utilities' water conservation programs, whether they are directed at discouraging household leaks, short-term droughts or long-term water scarcity. Some utilities are exploring using AMI-generated short interval data as a conservation tool. By obtaining interval data, they can notify customers when consumption is much higher than normal.

The information can form the basis of its own conservation program (e.g., informing customers about potential leaks or overly high consumption) or complement existing conservation efforts (for example, provide feedback on how much water was applied in an irrigation system in an overnight period).

Moreover, the data can help to enforce watering bans or rationing. Some utilities are exploring how to provide more immediate price signals to customers to shape demand. Others, such as the City of Chicago, feel that providing more discrete and understandable units (gallons, instead of CCFs) will encourage awareness and conservation.

The consumption data can be used to identify the "signature" of a leak. With AMI, the utility can notify customers when there is a small leak (e.g., from a running toilet), or a larger leak (such as from a broken sprinkler head) prior to the customer getting the bill.

AMR can have a significant impact on water conservation by (1) enabling more frequent meter reading and billing; (2) parsing consumption into frequent time intervals to enable the utility and its customers to look at consumption profile data for education and awareness, feedback or compliance monitoring/enforcement (such as odd/even day water sprinkling); (3) detecting continuous flow at customers' premises, which might indicate a leak; and (4) providing meter readings at precisely the beginning and end of certain periods (which would support seasonal or other time of use pricing).

By enabling more economical submetering, AMR can (1) facilitate monitoring of industrial processes to detect wasteful practices or faulty equipment; (2) provide metering of condo apartments, stores or offices, which has a well documented conservation impact; and (3) meter service lines dedicated to irrigation systems, swimming pools or water cooled air conditioners (known as deduct or subtraction metering) to identify wastage or faulty equipment (e.g., pool leaks, or excessive blowdown in coolers).

Distribution system mass balance

Utilities have expressed interest in reading all of the meters in a pumping district or pressure zone simultaneously at the beginning and end of a time period (say, one day), and comparing this to the water delivered to that district to help pinpoint non-revenue water. This application is more convenient with a fixed system, but not impossible with a mobile system that records interval data. As with consumption profiling, the level of precision needed to conduct such an analysis does not need "on the hour" synchronization, and depends on the resolution of the raw meter data.

About the Author:

Don Schlenger is Managing Partner of Cognyst Consulting, L.L.C. and helps utilities evaluate, select and implement advanced metering systems and other customer service technologies. Founder of the Automatic Meter Reading Association, Dr. Schlenger also teaches courses on project management and advanced metering for water utilities.

Event to feature AMR/AMI Technologies

Utilimetrics: Alliance for Advanced Metering & Data Management Solutions (formerly AMRA) is planning its annual AMR/AMI conference. Autovation® 2008: The Utilimetrics International Symposium, will be held Sept. 7–10 in Atlanta, GA. It will bring together AMR/AMI experts and key personnel for four days of the latest and most innovative utility automation strategies and technologies.

Water utility attendees can take advantage of:

  • Educational presentations designed for water utility professionals such as:
  • "Utility Customer Marketing"
  • "ARB in City of Raleigh"
  • "A Tough Nut to Crack: Making the Case for AMR in the West"
  • "A Rock Solid Business Case!"
  • "AMR City of Atlanta"
  • Optimizing Fixed Network AMR/AMI with Smart Water Meter Encoder Register Technology
  • Implementing Proactive Leak Management
  • Water Utility Peer Forums — Roundtable discussions to focus on hot topics, triumphs and challenges.

Plus, maximize AMR/AMI networking and education opportunities with Breakfast with the Experts, Special Interest Group Breakfast, First Time Attendees Orientation, Opening Reception and Exhibit Hall Receptions.

Utilimetrics is a nonprofit trade association that brings together the industry's diverse stakeholders to share best practices and promote innovative communication networks and data management solutions that link utilities and customers. Members receive discounted Autovation® registration fees and reap the yearlong benefits of connecting to AMR/AMI expertise, networks, resources and leadership.

For more information about Autovation® or Utilimetrics visit www.utilimetrics.org or call 847-480-9628.

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