Water Utility AMR Systems Begin Transition to Advanced Information Systems

According to various market forecasters, the percentage of AMR units installed on water meters in North America is well above 25%, and is expected to hit more than 40% by 2012.

by Don Schlenger

According to various market forecasters, the percentage of AMR units installed on water meters in North America is well above 25%, and is expected to hit more than 40% by 2012. Several large AMR projects have commenced within the last several months, with several more about to start.

As installations in several large cities, including Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta get under way, several other large cities, including New York, Toronto, San Diego and Cleveland, are preparing to acquire systems. In fact, more than half of the water utilities serving the two hundred largest cities in the United States and Canada have fully implemented AMR or are in the process of acquiring and deploying it. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of new AMR projects have started in the past year among smaller utilities.

Integration between water meters and AMR systems, and choices among meters, remain strategic issues for vendors and utilities. Some vendors claim that their systems will read all models of meter registers - dial-position encoder, electronic pulse and straight (the latter with an optical sensor). Others have chosen to limit their options. There appears to be more acknowledgement by vendors of their ability to read each others’ meters; however, utilities desiring such interoperability should probably take a cautious approach.

The water AMR market appears to be finally tipping from mobile AMR systems to fixed systems. Vendors report a significant shift in interest among water utility prospects towards fixed radio technologies. In parallel with this trend, almost every major meter manufacturer and AMR technology vendor has positioned itself to be able to offer a fixed radio solution as part of a “portfolio” of products. Some examples:

  • Itron offers both the 60W mobile and the 2.5 fixed water AMR products. Through its recent acquisition of Actaris, Itron should be able to purse a more integrated approach to the water meter market.
  • Datamatic, although it has a mobile AMR solution capable of storing and uploading detailed consumption information from the meter interface unit, has introduced a mesh network solution called Mosaic. A unique aspect of its system is the ability to use the same MIU in a mobile configuration or a mesh network configuration, enabling the utility to migrate from mobile to fixed without having to replace the transmitter at the meter.
  • In addition to its Galaxy fixed system, Badger has created a migration path to a fixed architecture for its Orion mobile AMR system through the use of Orion collectors attached to Wi-Fi transceivers.
  • Neptune is developing a similar approach for its R900 mobile units.
  • Elster recently introduced is evolution AMI fixed-network system and also acquired the French company Coronis Systems, which will enable it to provide additional offerings for water meter solutions. To date, Elster has embraced a broad range of technologies, and worked with several technology partners to provide interoperable and integrated system solutions.

Driven by competitive pressure, the gap between unit prices for mobile systems and fixed is narrowing, making the advanced features of fixed system even more attractive. Meanwhile, more water utilities have become intrigued by the promise of vast amounts of consumption information that can be used for customer service, conservation and distribution system operational enhancements.

Led by the vendors, and following the example of electric utilities, water utilities are starting to borrow the term AMI (for “advanced metering infrastructure”) for their systems. Even though this might prove to be overkill for many residential customers, water utilities are being inexorably drawn toward short-interval, high-precision measurement of consumption. This volume of data requires sophisticated AMR engineering to maintain long battery lives and avoid crowding system bandwidth.

This data won’t fit on a typical customer information (billing) system. It requires a separate database, which might be a semi-autonomous meter data management system (MDMS) incorporating software and interfaces to extract the data for specific uses. We can expect IT firms, engineering consultants and AMR/AMI vendors to offer many new information management solutions in the next year or two.

Acquiring, operating, maintaining and fully developing applications for highly detailed consumption data can constitute a “hidden” cost for AMR systems. A few AMR projects are already exhibiting this bent, and the considerably higher system cost per point of some projects reflects it. Some utility managers are wondering whether having all this data imposes new responsibilities (e.g., for early leak detection) on them in conjunction with the ability to provide new and enhanced services.

As with any technological shift, water utility managers will face numerous challenges and opportunities in their quest to leverage their investment.

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.

AMRA International Symposium

AMRA celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and is planning the most dynamic AMR/AMI conference in its history. Autovation 2007: The AMRA International Symposium, Sept. 30 - Oct. 3 in Reno, NV, will bring together AMR/AMI experts and key personnel for four days of the latest and most innovative utility automation strategies and technologies.

Delegates can take advantage of:

  • Intensive Pre-Autovation Courses such as “Water and Electricity Don’t Mix - So What are the Best Water Utility AMRA/AMI Strategies?,” which explores deployment planning issues and the industry’s first water AMI project
  • Educational sessions in a track designed for water utility professionals, including:
  • “Water AMR/AMI - The Future”
  • “You’ll Get AMR Over My Dead Body”
  • “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow - A Case Study on AMR Solution for the Water Industry”
  • “Solving the Water Loss Puzzle”
  • “Using AMS as a Water Conservation Tool”
  • “The AMR System is Installed, Now What?”
  • Water Utility Peer Forums -Roundtable discussions to discuss hot topics, triumphs and challenges. For utility representatives only
  • Autovation Exhibit Hall - Your best source of information about products and services designed to derive more value from your AMR investment

Plus, maximize AMR networking and education opportunities with Speed Networking, Breakfast with the Experts, First Time Attendees Orientation, Opening Reception and Exhibit Hall Reception.

AMRA members receive discounted Autovation registration fees and reap the yearlong benefits of connecting to AMR/AMI expertise, networks, resources and leadership.

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