Understanding ‘Smart’

Oct. 18, 2019
Smart metering offers the utility views of its service territory, inventory, instantaneous and seasonal demand, and assets requiring attention, all from a new angle.

It isn’t defined by the device; it’s defined by you.

By John Downey

Speed. As a measure of competence in nearly any activity, it is a highly regarded metric. In the information age, data transmission speeds in communications networks have increased exponentially, suggesting an equally exponential increase in overall quality of those networks.

Volume. For communications networks, it is the amount of data, reliably transmitted with ever-increasing speed, that is also deemed a measure of our ability to effectively communicate. In athletic contests, speed in foot races and volume in weightlifting provide clear, unequivocal numbers than indicate winners. Can speed and volume be apt metaphors, however, for the quality of our communications capabilities today?

We have practiced formally-organized communication for 5,000 years. Over that time, the most meaningful changes in that practice have been the speed with which information is delivered and, only most recently, the amount. These changes have become commodities themselves; qualities, desirable features, the point of the exercise. They enable us to aggregate disparate data, organize it in ways we deem useful, and share it with (or sell it to) each other.

What hasn’t changed much in that same time frame is our collective ability to reflect critically on the quality, the usefulness, of all this information we’re communicating to each other. The greater the torrent of data, the less opportunity remains to judge its value.

Into the mix of uncertain capabilities and promise comes the “smart” water meter. Smart metering, or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), is the next step in a 50-year evolution of the discipline. In line with the need to refine and automate the management of increasingly scarce resources, smart metering offers the utility views of its service territory, inventory, instantaneous and seasonal demand, and assets requiring attention, all from a new angle. As a tool for utility management, the concept is universally accepted, while the capability continues to evolve. As with so much born of the information age, speed and volume are the key features, perhaps the only features, being offered to today’s utility managers. Understanding what the evolution in communications technology can actually make possible, and make practical, for your operation are key to implementing a new, effective metering infrastructure.

A water meter becomes a smart meter the moment you decide to do something useful with the data it provides. The implication here is that the data already exists; it is how you access, organize and share that data that will make it valuable, and these should reflect your purposes for collecting it. Traditionally, and in most cases currently, utility metering is a backward-looking exercise. Whether charges are a flat rate per connection or consumption-based, billing is for service delivered in a previous month, or commonly quarter, and often is three or six months out of phase with the calendar. Automating the metering and billing systems allows for the collection of revenue in a timelier manner; sends more valuable use and cost signals to the customer; and allows greater insight into individual and system-wide demand patterns.

Three sources have emerged to facilitate this AMI capability:

• Meter manufacturers

• Third-party billing administrators

• Software developers

Each has its strengths, and its objectives; each relies to some degree on the others to inform the AMI solutions it offers. Your AMI provider should be able to offer and support a complete solution suited to your needs. Deciding what those needs are and how they can be met requires an understanding of the limits of the technology.

Most instruments do one job. They incorporate a sensor designed to perform one task, such as measure volume (mechanical) or velocity (ultrasonic or electromagnetic) under certain conditions, continuously and reliably And they incorporate some ability to interpret and communicate the measurement, whether this is a visually-read, gear-driven register, liquid crystal display, bus communication protocol, or wireless signal. So, the water meter sensor, any water meter sensor, measures velocity in real time. That is the extent of its function. This capability can then be interpreted as a volume, both as a rate and cumulative total. For utility metering, it is the total that historically is the value of interest, being the basis for revenue. Ancillary information, such as real-time use, tamper detection, and meter health are derived from the velocity measurement, or the product of other sensors. So, what does this tell us we can expect from AMI?

Remember, metering is, by nature, a backward-looking exercise. Traditionally, distribution systems collect use data semi-annually or quarterly, prepare statements, and present to the customer today the charges for what was consumed six or nine months previously. Beyond preparation of quarterly billing, utilities are compiling the totalized water usage to determine demand, compare with production, and often, in sewered communities, to provide the basis on which to charge for sanitary sewer service.

Increasing the frequency of meter reading (that improvement in speed mentioned above) can make this data more relevant by tying it to the immediate past. Coupled with an automated billing function and more frequent billing, this improved data stream can provide both supplier and individual user with meaningful consumption data, allowing for the identification of use patterns and opportunities for conservation. This increased reading frequency can also make information such as individual meter security meaningful by allowing the identification of irregular meter conditions closer to their actual onset. Further increasing the speed of data collection, through automatic meter reading, provides the ability to change use habits and correct problems in real time. An automated metering system that provides instantaneous data through linking of the individual meters to a utility’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system affords the opportunity for better management of the distribution function as a whole, including improved revenue streams through timely billing.

We have identified the “volume” of data in this equation to be the totalized reading and the meter status; the latter incorporating meter health, tamper detection, and instantaneous velocity where the sensor type so allows. AMR data transmission is normally limited to total and health/tampering, the velocity part having meaning only if it is constantly collected. This volume of data is available through the smart meter if you have the means to collect it and choose to do so. The means exist in an expanded capability of the automated billing function. Funding this expanded capability presents a real challenge for any public utility today. The expense must ultimately be underwritten by collected revenue; therefore, the increased revenue must be demonstrably linked to the cost of such expansion, with a realistic return on investment. Yet the only data available for analysis is gathered at the end of the line, at the individual user.

What Data Is Missing?

Production flows are regularly measured and subject to local and federal reporting requirements. This includes both the water taken in for treatment and the water sent out to distribution. Commonly, these production flows are not compiled in the same database as the customer consumption data; moreover, it is quite common to have no measurement of flow at any stage between the two points. A community’s distribution network, growing as it will over decades in ad hoc patterns to meet the needs and locations of the specific users, will typically have no distribution metering; that is, there is no thought given to measuring the flow to certain sections of a service territory, only flow at the final consumption point. Yet, it is also generally recognized that the volume of water sent to distribution, and the volume of water that is billed for are two different numbers, sometimes alarmingly so.

The addition of distribution meters throughout a system, each reporting back the same data as the customer meters, allows insight into a service territory’s consumption habits that could only be assumed previously. This level of detail can be used in planning and conservation programs specific to a subdistrict, increasing their local buy-in and effectiveness. As for return on investment, which scenario is preferable and less costly to remedy: becoming aware of a leak in the distribution system only when a portion of a parking lot collapses, hopefully unoccupied on a Sunday morning, or through instantaneous measurement of distribution flows (and readily apparent anomalies) afforded by smart metering?

These possibilities for system management exist now, derived from a very limited dataset needing only to be collected and considered.

The information gained can serve a number of purposes, including work order creation and management, preventive maintenance scheduling, demand forecasting, regulatory reporting and responsible resource stewardship — all functions of the modern utility, all performed (until now, at least) in a decentralized manner with much of the detail existing or available using data collectable from the meter system.

A metering system becomes smart the moment you decide to organize that data to best advantage because smart isn’t defined by the device; it’s defined by you. WW

About the Author: John Downey is the marketing manager at Spire Metering Technology, a manufacturer of water and energy metering solutions. Downey currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Water Pollution Control Association (MWPCA).

About the Author

John Downey

John Downey is the marketing manager at Spire Metering Technology, a manufacturer of water and energy metering solutions. Downey currently serves on the board of the Massachusetts Water Pollution Control Association (MWPCA).