Water Utilities Pump More Value from AMR Systems as Market Grows

In 2005, Vendors shipped almost 3.8 million AMR endpoints to North American water utilities, according to the newly released 2006 Scott Report on AMR Deployments in North America.

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In 2005, Vendors shipped almost 3.8 million AMR endpoints to North American water utilities, according to the newly released 2006 Scott Report on AMR Deployments in North America. This was an increase of more than 15% over the number of units shipped in 2004. At present, more than 6,000 water utilities have undertaken AMR for their water customers in whole or in part. Market penetration is now well above 25%, and has been growing at more than 25% per year (this number will drop in the future based on the “law of large numbers”).

Meanwhile, there are a few large AMR projects and hundreds of smaller projects underway, and several significant projects about to start. Several large cities, such as Chicago, Kansas City, Toronto and Atlanta, and other major county water departments and authorities, are pushing ahead with AMR. These large deployments, coupled with hundreds more small to mid-sized projects, will continue to spur sales, market growth, profits and development over the next few years.

As a sign of maturity of the market, several water utilities are now replacing their older first generation AMR systems with newer ones. This evolution has been driven by the end of expected battery life in transmitters, as well as technological obsolescence. The replacement systems range from drive-by AMR to fixed network systems that provide detailed consumption information.

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Cumulative AMR units shipped, North America. Source: The 2006 Scott Report on AMR Deployments in North America, based on data supplied by vendors
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Spurred by these growth statistics, and similar projects for the electric and gas utility markets (driven by needs similar to those of water utilities as well as by the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the push to demand response as an energy conservation measure), investment capital has been pouring into the AMR industry and the manufacturing community is experiencing consolidation. For example, Sensus Metering Systems recently announced its purchase of Advanced Metering Data Systems, a fixed radio AMR system manufacturer. Hexagram, another major provider to the AMR market, was recently acquired by ESCO Technologies (which also provides a major powerline carrier AMR system to the electric industry) and recently appointed Neptune Technology Group as the exclusive distributor for its fixed network AMR system for the water utility, water submetering and government markets in North America. Other acquisitions are in the works.

This will enable vendors to provide a portfolio of choices to water utilities, although some utility managers are concerned about whether the number of vendors from which they can purchase, and the inter-operability with different makes of water meters, will be reduced.

While the last year has seen the demise of a few AMR manufacturers, several newer ones have started to be contenders in the marketplace, offering new feature sets and greater radio signal strength. Some vendors are using mesh networks, in which data collectors can relay data back through each other, to extend the range of fixed AMR systems.

Many communities are interested in city-wide Wi-Fi, and are looking to AMR to help justifying the investment, following the example of Corpus Christie, TX. The fixed radio data collector can backhaul its data to the utility’s office over Wi-Fi. AMR data collectors can be juxtaposed with Wi-Fi transceivers.

Existing vendors has released new versions of their MIUs (Itron’s 60W, for example) characterized by longer battery life and higher power. Most manufacturers are now providing MIU warranties of up to 20 years (admittedly pro-rated in the latter years).

Several AMR manufacturers have adopted “installer friendly” designs, which allow for easier mounting on walls or in outside meter pits, and snap-in pre-potted weatherproof connectors, although connections between meters and MIUs have yet to be standardized.

To achieve greater range, more utilities are moving to non-ferrous meter pit lids, which are being designed to accommodate AMR units (usually with brackets or pre-cast holes). The larger mushroom antenna on the top of a metal meter lid will be increasingly uncommon.

Water utilities are increasingly interested in obtaining detailed consumption data that they can present to customers to resolve high bills, identify leaks and promote conservation. This has led to increased emphasis on higher resolution meter encoders, MIUs with data storage capabilities, leak detection capabilities in the meter or MIU, and higher rates of meter sampling and data transmission.

Some utilities are enabling customers to view daily or even more frequent consumption data on the Web, or otherwise providing detailed graphs to customers. At least one manufacturer has an in-home display remote monitor that receives signals from the MIU on the meter. These devices can indicate leaks, and can be reset so that customers can measure water using events, like taking a shower.

A few utilities are piloting acoustic leak detectors, which can readily transmit leak information over the AMR system. Research into pressure and even water quality data over AMR system is underway. Some water utilities use the detailed data from their AMR systems to identify underperforming or improperly sized meters, measure the impacts of conservation initiatives on consumption patterns, and compare total consumption to total production in pressure zones to identify distribution system water losses.

With the greater sophistication of AMR devices, more applications will be developed over time, and the heretofore qualitative benefits of AMR, like helping conserve water, will be quantified, enabling more utilities to build solid business cases.

About the Author:

Don Schlenger is a principal of Cognyst Consulting LLC with 30 years of experience in utility management and consulting. He is an internationally recognized expert in AMR, and is responsible for creating one of the world’s first large-scale AMR deployments. A former utility executive, he was a founding member of AMRA and has taught courses at several industry events. He now advises utilities around the country and has expertise in conservation projects, rate design, environmental impact assessments, customer surveys and market studies.

Event to Feature Latest AMR Technologies

AMRA, the international voice of the automatic meter reading industry, will host Autovation 2006: The AMRA International Symposium, Oct. 22-25 at the Nashville Convention Center in Nashville, TN.

Autovation 2006 is four days of education and exhibits - the latest and most innovative utility automation strategies and technologies. The educational conference takes a fresh look at automation strategies for utilities of all types and sizes. Sessions cover system fundamentals as well as advanced issues of interest to utility leaders who have managed AMR systems for years and now want to progress to the next level.

Delegates can take advantage of:

• Intensive Pre-Autovation Courses such as “Water AMI - It’s Not as Easy as It Looks,” offering expertise on water AMR system evaluation and selection

• Two days of Educational Sessions. Topics include business cases and financing, system planning, IT solutions and data integration, billing and revenue services, demand response, and leakage detection and conservation

• Utility-to-Utility Forums - roundtable discussions to facilitate the free flow of ideas and experiences for utility representatives only

• Autovation Exhibit Hall - a source of information about products and services designed to derive more value from an AMR project

Also, delegates can maximize their AMR networking and education opportunities with Speed Networking, Breakfast With the Experts and Post-Autovation Courses - all new to Autovation 2006.

For more information about membership, Autovation or AMRA visit www.amra-intl.org.

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