Drought Prompts Pilot Testing of Water Consumption Monitors

June 1, 2005
Despite Colorado’s copious snowfall this winter and a cool, wet summer in 2004, the state’s water utility managers remain concerned about conservation and drought.

Despite Colorado’s copious snowfall this winter and a cool, wet summer in 2004, the state’s water utility managers remain concerned about conservation and drought.

“This recent drought has been a wake-up call,” said Dan Mikesell, manager of utility service operations for the City of Aurora, Colorado’s third largest city. “Droughts can happen any time,” Mikesell said, and they have happened twice in semi-arid Colorado over the past 40 years.

During 2002, this beleaguered Rocky Mountain state suffered its worst dry spell in more than 300 years. In response, AMR vendors teamed with Colorado water providers to create new conservation tools, which were tested in 2004 at three Denver-area utilities. These technology trials proved that real-time knowledge of water consumption is the key to water conservation.

Watchful Technology

In the electric utility world, demand management programs run off price signals that alert consumers to the actual price of electricity when peak loads spike prices sky high. In the water utility world, demand management starts with usage awareness, and that means consumption monitors.

One such monitor is the Itron Conservation Station tested last year by Denver Water, where about 210,000 Itron drive-by AMR units are already in use. This in-home, countertop device continuously picked up meter reads from encoder receiver transmitters (ERTs) in existing Itron AMR units. An eight-month test of the product prototypes showed some promising results.

The technology was simple. Denver Water programmed ERTs at participating households to remain in “bubble up” mode and transmit signals every three seconds. That change cut projected battery life in half, from 20 years to 10, but the units were reprogrammed to “wake-up” mode once the trial was over, and now the ERTs transmit reads only when they hear the wake-up signal from an Itron interrogation unit driving by.

With the continuous reads, the in-home monitors were able to show consumers the current meter reading, the amount of water used since the last time the monitor was reset and a projection of how much would be used by the time the billing cycle ended.

“We found that people with the devices did use less water than their neighbors, but we feel our study wasn’t as pure as it could have been because we were in the middle of a drought,” said Greg Fisher, chief planner at Denver Water.

Fisher’s concerns rest on the reality that drought in Denver means water restrictions for the utility’s customers. During the drought period in which devices were being tested, residential customers were allowed to sprinkle lawns and gardens only two days per week, 15 minutes per irrigation zone and never between the high-evaporation hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Because everyone was restricted in their water use, we don’t know if people with Conservation Stations would have saved significantly more than others under normal conditions,” Fisher said.

He also wonders if savings would have tapered off when the novelty of the devices wore off.

“People became less and less frequent users of the units,” Fisher said. “I know initially I found the display very helpful to gain understanding of how much water I was using in a shower or how much I used on a daily basis, but after I knew that, I stopped looking at the monitor.”

Despite decreased reliance on the monitor, users of the Conservation Station did use less water than their neighbors, and the utility gained valuable lessons about what does and doesn’t work with a device such as this.

“On the prototypes, we could change the display to read from gallons to dollars, converting usage into money,” said Bob Blauvelt, Denver Water’s customer service manager. “We determined it would be impossible to support that feature with a wide-spread deployment because of all the different rates we have.”

Fortunately, customers didn’t find the conversion feature very useful, Blauvelt said.

On the other hand, the two surveys that Denver Water administered to Conservation Station users demonstrated that a per-event measurement feature would be a welcome addition. That is, customers wanted the capability to reset the units to see exactly how much water a shower takes without having to subtract the pre-shower reading from the post-shower read.

Still, many customers did do the subtraction. And many would like to continue using the Conservation Stations.

“We’ve had people who were in the trial call to see if we’ll let them take the devices back,” Blauvelt said. “Since these were prototype devices, they’re not generally available.”

Itron is still evaluating the feasibility of manufacturing the product.

Collaboration and Development

On the eastern and western flanks of Denver lie the cities of Aurora and Arvada respectively. Both cities put in-home meter displays created by Badger Meter to the test last year. In fact, Aurora’s water woes inspired Badger to create the product in the first place.

“We’re a younger city and we’re somewhat junior in our water rights, so we don’t have the resources other cities have,” said Aurora’s Mikesell. East of the Mississippi, many states assign “riparian” water rights, which grant the right to use the water to the people who own property adjacent to it. In Colorado and many Western states, water rights don’t necessarily come with a piece of property. Rather, water rights are based on the legal doctrine of “prior appropriation,” which means the first city, company or person to use the water generally holds the claim to it in the future.

That’s why Aurora’s relative young municipal age leaves the city high and dry when drought occurs. Last summer, as some Denver-area reservoirs dropped to less than 50 percent of capacity, Aurora imposed water budgets on customers.

“We needed our customers to reduce consumption by 30 percent, so we looked at historic usage, charged customers 70 percent of that usage at a low rate, and anything over the 70 percent budget was charged at a higher rate,” Mikesell said. “There was a large rate differential. The penalty equaled what it would take for us to go out and get replacement water, which was very expensive. This was a demand management effort, and we did a lot of public education surrounding it. The whole idea is to get customers to understand they could maintain their irrigation needs with less water.”

Faced with penalty rates, many customers sought ways to watch their water consumption more closely.

“Customers came back to us and asked, ‘How do we know how much water we’re using?’” Mikesell said. “That’s when we went to Badger with a list of things we needed in an in-home display unit.”

Badger took only two months to develop the first prototype. Aurora’s initial wish list had four items on it. The city wanted customers to:

• Be able to read the meter

• Have the power to check for leaks and specific per-event usage

See how much water had been used in comparison to a water budget

• Use and store the units easily

Unlike Conservation Stations, the Water Smart Monitors created by Badger Meter have a magnetized backing so that they attach to a customer’s refrigerator. The devices also have a reset feature that lets users zero-out the display just as a driver can hit the trip meter in an automobile. This feature allows users to check consumption from the dishwasher, a shower, the laundry machine, the sprinkler system or any other water-hungry appliance.

In Arvada, one other feature was added to the prototype, and it will be included in the units Arvada places in homes.

“We requested a leak detection option,” said Cliff Deeds, Arvada’s transmission and distribution superintendent. “If there has been no one-hour stop in consumption over a 24-hour period, a red light will flash on the unit. This adds a dollar or two to the cost of the unit, but out of the 300 or 400 high-consumption calls we get each year, 90 percent come from toilet leaks.”

The Badger units evolved during the beta tests conducted by Aurora and Arvada.

“We had three product upgrades in the test phase,” Mikesell said. “Badger increased the power, changed the look and added functionality.”

Astonishing Awareness

Spotlighting consumption had a similar effect on all pilot participants, including the utility managers who masterminded the programs. All the people who used the monitoring devices were stunned by how much water day-to-day activities sent down the drain.

“When I used my remote, I was shocked that one cycle of my sprinkler system poured 680 gallons of water on my yard,” Deeds said. “People would tell us they were amazed to see their teenage son’s shower took 80 gallons. One co-worker was convinced he had a leak in his home until the monitor showed him that the swamp cooler in his small greenhouse used five gallons of water every 30 minutes.”

Blauvelt said: “If people are aware of consumption, they’ll adjust it.” And results of the three pilot programs proved this to be true. Mikesell estimates he dropped his water use 35 percent compared with the prior year’s usage. Other program participants also met or exceeded the consumption cuts required by their utilities.

For this reason, both Aurora and Arvada will roll out the technology as early as summer 2005.

Badger’s in-home remotes work only with Orion system AMR, which is what Aurora is now placing on all 70,000 residential accounts. The city will offer users a $25 rebate to purchase the product, which Aurora plans to introduce through targeted mailings as soon as a customer’s route gets converted to the Orion system.

Arvada is phasing in the product slowly. Because the municipality has seen a 25 percent reduction in water consumption, it also has seen a corresponding reduction in revenue, and budget concerns keep the city from deploying Orion technology more quickly than AWWA meter-replacement specifications mandate. The city will, however, deploy Orion technology during the next four or five years, and the remotes will be part of that upgrade.

“This is a product for the future,” Mikesell said. “Demand management has to hit the water world.”

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