Flying High with New Metering Technology

A phased, multi-year overhaul of their metering system allowed a Utah utility to deploy new technology that would unite their metering capabilities under a single solution while enhancing their ability to gather and report meter data for more accurate billing.

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By Dan Pinney

When a city is growing as rapidly as Eagle Mountain, Utah, it can be hard for the water utility to keep up. Located just north and west of the Lake Mountains, Eagle Mountain recently surpassed the 40,000-resident milestone (up from just over 21,000 in 2010), which comes as no surprise to its public utilities manager, Mack Straw.

“We are a rural community with many outdoor recreation options, close enough for residents to commute to both the Salt Lake and Provo/Orem urban centers,” said Straw. “It’s not surprising people would want to move out of the city and come here.”

Explosive growth of this kind is daunting enough, but when the utility in question is operating disparate metering and meter-­reading systems, it can be especially challenging.

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Eagle Mountain, Utah, is a rural community with many outdoor recreation options, close enough for residents to commute to both the Salt Lake and Provo/Orem urban centers.

“We’re using meters and smartpoints from multiple vendors,” said Straw. “When you’re adding 85 new accounts a month like we are, that’s just asking for trouble.”

Eagle Mountain was determined to get ahead of these challenges by undergoing a phased, multi-year overhaul of its metering system. This included deploying new technology that would unite its metering capabilities under a single solution while enhancing its ability to gather and report meter data for more accurate billing. It also included better equipping the utility to address customer issues like leaks.

“With all the different technologies in place, we felt like we needed to pick one and stay with it,” said Straw.

Taking Flight

The first phase of Eagle Mountain’s journey took a two-pronged approach: beginning a replacement program to standardize both commercial and residential meters; and deploying a new automatic meter reading solution to streamline the process of gathering data through drive-by meter reads.

After a rigorous evaluation process, Eagle Mountain chose to standardize its meter and meter-reading technologies with solutions from Sensus, a Xylem Brand. The initial deployment consisted of Sensus iPERL® residential and OMNI™ commercial smart meters. Additionally, the utility chose to use the Sensus FlexNet EasyLink™ Mobile Communications solution, which allows technicians to automate the process of meter data collection through a portable, long-range radio device. With this approach, information is gathered through a single mobile reading device that collects data from both FlexNet SmartPoints and encoder receiver transmitters (ERTs) simultaneously.

While testing EasyLink, the utility began replacing its residential and commercial water meters to standardize its metering, taking a strategic approach to meter replacement in a way that wouldn’t disrupt customers’ daily service. To date the city has placed or replaced approximately 2,000 of its 9,000 residential water meters, and they continue to do so as old meters begin to fail.

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Operating disparate metering and meter-­reading systems was especially challenging as the city grew. Eagle Mountain was determined to get ahead of these challenges by undergoing a phased, multi-year overhaul of its metering system.

“Replacing our entire system is an enormous project, and we don’t want to burden our residents,” said Straw. “Whenever there’s an issue with one of our current meters we don’t bother fixing it the way we used to. We just go in and replace it with one of the new ones and that takes care of the issue.”

Currently, the city anticipates having all its meters replaced with the new smart meters by 2023.

“We’re scaling at our own pace, but we’ve set an ambitious timeline and right now we’re on track to hit that,” said Straw.

Reaping the Rewards

Even at this stage of deployment, Eagle Mountain is seeing considerable benefits from the new technology. The new meter reading system has been effective at reducing the time spent collecting data, allowing technicians to focus their time on what’s really important — helping customers.

“A process that used to take two technicians two days can now be done with just one technician in the same amount of time,” said Straw. “We’re hoping that with a little more fine-tuning we can get that down to one technician collecting all the meter data in just a single day.”

The new smart meters enable efficient billing and provide the city with better information to answer customers’ questions about issues with their water usage.

“The meters themselves will hold 30–45 days of data, and we’ve had to use that where people are questioning their water consumption,” said Straw. “One of the capabilities we really like is that even if internet access goes down, we can locally go grab that information without internet, so we’re still pulling data even without connectivity.”

Leak detection continues to be one of the biggest challenges that Eagle Mountain faces with day-to-day customer service, and it’s an area where the new meters have been especially helpful.

“We had one resident who called us with a concern about his bill and said he walked through the whole yard and couldn’t find any leaks. We pulled up the data and saw one day where there was a spike in consumption, and the customer said, ‘That’s the day my fountain blew up.’ Turned out he had a fountain that had frozen and that created a leak, which resulted in a loss of more than 30,000 gallons of water.”

Learning from the Past and Soaring into the Future

Deploying a new metering and meter-reading system has been a significant undertaking for Eagle Mountain. And while it’s one that the team has tackled head on, it has also taught the utility some important lessons.

“The biggest thing utilities need to have with a project like this is patience, especially when you’re testing a new technology,” said Straw. “There are always going to be challenges that come up through the deployment process, but be patient and stick to your plan and you’ll start seeing the benefits.”

Straw also recommends working with a vendor that will be there to answer the call when challenges arise.

“The help we’ve gotten from our customer service reps has been invaluable, just top-notch support,” he said. “We’re a relatively small customer by their standards and they’ve gone above and beyond our expectations. We feel like whenever we contact them we’re being given top priority.”

As Straw looks to the future, he and the Eagle Mountain team are dreaming big. In the coming years they anticipate making a full transition to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which will eliminate the need for drive-by meter reads altogether and automate the process of data collection over an advanced, two-way communication network. With the city projected to grow to 120,000 residents by 2040, the team is confident that each new step will better equip them to meet the challenges of today’s growth while preparing for what’s next.

“We’re at the point of no return,” said Straw. “When all is said and done we’re expecting to be one of the largest cities in Utah, and we think the investments we make in technology now are going to pay off for years to come.” WW

About the Author: Dan Pinney is the global director of water marketing for Sensus. Pinney has 27 years of experience in the global water industry with leadership roles in operations and development at Sensus. He attended the University of Florida, majoring in electrical engineering.

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