Water Meter Data Management: To Sink or SWIM?

Dec. 7, 2017
A System for Water Information Management (SWIM) is an inevitability for the water industry and will likely be a crucial step to improving data interoperability and increasing the adoption rate of AMI technologies.

By Jeff Lipton

The role of a Meter Data Management System (MDMS) is not well defined within the water industry. Many products on the market claim to provide MDM functionality, but few people understand the value of what these systems offer. To understand how this confusion has come about and what can be done to address data management needs in the water industry, we need to first examine the evolution of the MDM.

A Brief History of the MDMS

In the late 1990s, the electric industry pioneered the concept of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), recognizing a need for more frequent and accurate meter data. However, this emerging meter information occasionally delivered anomalistic or missing data, and an MDMS was designed to manage and clean the incoming flood of data.

Over time, electric MDM solution providers have added tools to clean and process incoming metering data, now known as “VEE”: validation, estimation, and editing. This system catches data anomalies and flags them for further analysis or remediation, where either computer programs or users can intervene to “edit” the data before it becomes “data of record.” VEE can also automatically synthesize missing read data.

While MDMs don’t technically need to be dedicated systems, electric utilities have unique considerations that have contributed to the evolution of the MDMs as standalone systems, distinct from an AMI platform. Electric utilities need to track large volumes of data associated with hundreds or even millions of meters, as well as sync with other smart devices (part of the concept of the “smart grid”). Given the scale of a typical electric utility, there can be multiple metering technologies in place at any given time. Having a central independent data repository for the management and dissemination of all this disparate data is the only rational solution in the face of such complexity.

The Elusive Water MDM

Unsurprisingly, the water industry has yet to embrace the concept of an MDM in its original (i.e., electric-specific) form. While many consultants talk about MDMs, and we often see language in AMI RFPs referencing MDMs, the majority of true MDM capabilities are not beneficial to water utilities, and the major challenges presented by a true MDM are nearly insurmountable for small agencies.

Benefit and Challenge 1: Multi-vendor and Multi-technology Support

MDMs centralize and normalize metering data from multiple systems for electric utilities, which typically cover large service areas requiring different technologies depending on geography. For example, RF-based AMI may work in urban or suburban areas, whereas rural locations may require PLC, cellular or manual/AMR reading. Water utilities, conversely, tend to be much smaller and do not typically implement multiple technologies to cover their local territories. In the rare instance when they do, they often utilize technology from a common vendor.

Electric utilities also want an independent source for meter data ownership. An MDM often functions as a data bus, shepherding normalized information between various systems. Its replacement is challenging due to the number of systems typically reliant on it. Consequently, electric utilities typically implement third-party MDM solutions from major providers rather than from the metering vendors themselves. In many cases, the metering vendors do not even offer full MDM functionality, so using an independent solution provides the most flexibility in selecting an AMI network provider.

Most water utilities integrate AMI with their billing software and call it a day. They generally push the metering vendors to add some MDM “lite” functionality into their AMI head-end systems such as longer-term storage (up to two years max), billing file export, basic reporting, and third-party APIs. However, this approach means a high risk of vendor lock-in and, because both the MDM and the head-end system are conjoined, the MDM functionality is often limited. Also, many utilities wish to keep their data for much longer.

Benefit and Challenge 2: Interoperability

Electric utilities have a large number of data systems (as many as 12+) that require metering information. Getting access to all this data is no small feat. The National Rural Electric Coop Association (catering to utilities under 300k endpoints) has developed a standard for meter data system interoperability known as MultiSpeak. From the MultiSpeak About page:

The MultiSpeak Specification is a key industry-wide standard for realizing the potential of enterprise application interoperability. The MultiSpeak Specification is the most widely applied de facto standard in North America pertaining to distribution utilities and all portions of vertically-integrated utilities except generation and power marketing.

Unfortunately, the water utility industry has no equivalent initiative to MultiSpeak. Without a standard, system integration becomes a reality only with massive custom integration efforts on a case-by-case basis or through vendor-to-vendor partnerships. Both are costly and require the utility to assume some level of risk.

Benefit and Challenge 3: Scale

Since most electric utilities are very large, they need data warehouse systems that are built for massive scale and are highly reliable. Electric MDM providers have built systems to match such needs. The industry now utilizes highly robust, though relatively expensive, systems that meet the specific needs of electric utilities.

Water utilities are much smaller and draw from a significantly smaller base of ratepayers, making a massively scalable, reliable MDM like those offered to electric utilities cost prohibitive. Consequently, there emerges a significant mismatch between need and budget when it comes to the requirements of a water MDM.

Current State in the Water Industry

The water industry as it relates to the MDM concept is in a state of flux. A few disruptive entrants into the market are creating confusion with “MDM-like” products while consultants are increasingly encouraging utilities to require true MDM functionality and meter technology independence. However, interoperability challenges coupled with a lack of technical skills at most water utilities are ever-present.

Scalable and cost-effective meter- and network-agnostic water MDM solutions are clearly desired. Such solutions should include affordable, long-term data storage and cleansing, and billing read exports. A dedicated water MDM can help utilities avoid vendor lock-in while easily piloting multiple meter and network technologies. Since the MDM is essentially a file storage and software solution, it can be deployed in the cloud at low cost with the ability to quickly and easily scale on demand while updating software features as new reporting or export format requirements become relevant.

A System for Water Information Management (SWIM) is an inevitability for the industry and will likely be a crucial step to improving data interoperability through protocol standardization and help increase the adoption rate of AMI technologies to drive down system costs and improve service reliability. This would be a benefit to end-use customers, water utilities, and the communities that they serve. WW

About the Author: Jeff Lipton is director of marketing for WaterSmart Software where he manages the company’s go-to-market strategy development and marketing campaign activities, along with sales operations support.