Addressing Inefficiency Head-On

May 12, 2021
The City of Walker, La. leverages metering-as-a-service to upgrade aging water infrastructure and deliver residents accurate billing and improved customer service.

Water loss and billing accuracy are two issues the City of Walker, La., wanted to address head-on. As a city lauded as the best town in Louisiana for young and growing families, Walker is focused on finding new technologies and services to meet the expanding needs of their residents.

Located in the Baton Rouge metro area, Walker is one of the fastest growing cities in the state. The city provides water service to over 5,500 customers, as well as wastewater services to approximately 2,400 customers.

Walker required a metering program that provided operational efficiencies, ensured accurate monthly bills, and identified water loss quickly. Prior to the metering upgrade, Walker had a mix of technologies with both drive-by and walk-by reading solutions. In fact, over the course of several years, Walker had installed about half of their more than 1,000 drive-by meters themselves, but with the daily demands of water leaks, customer issues and day-to-day utility management, they found upgrading meters always fell off the urgency list. The cost of dispatching utility field workers to disconnect meters, manually reading meters and trying to upgrade to drive-by technology over many years proved not to be financially or operationally sound.

With its aging water meters and infrastructure, the city experienced both real and apparent water loss. Real loss occurs when water physically escapes from the distribution system prior to reaching the end user. Common causes of real loss includes leaks, breaks and storage tank overflows. With apparent water loss, the water reaches the end user, but the utility can’t bill for its use due to things like improperly sized water meters, inaccurate water meters, errors in meter reading or theft of service.

Amplifying the financial and operational challenges faced by the city, Walker was focused on measuring the amount of water produced vs. the amount of water delivered and consumed. Implementing an effective water loss management program was essential for the city to recover lost revenue and deliver cost-effective, accurate billing to its residents.

Delivering Real Solutions

Walker initially engaged UMS to support the installation of drive-by meters. The partnership quickly brought to light the many benefits of their netAMP® Metering-as-a-Service offering, which offered Walker an affordable, subscription-based model to deploy and finance a new Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) throughout the city. The AMI system — an integrated system of water meters, endpoints, communication networks and data management technology — offered Walker more visibility across their entire system to make smarter, data-driven strategic decisions. netAMP not only provided Walker an expedited migration path to AMI, but it also provided a comprehensive program to enable operational efficiencies, ensure accurate billing, decrease non-revenue water loss, and improve customer service.

UMS delivered all the equipment, meters, software and services to upgrade Walker’s antiquated infrastructure to an AMI system and turned multiple reading solutions and processes into a single efficient process. UMS took responsibility for the deployment and ensured the AMI meters performed optimally even after the upgrade was complete.

“Selecting UMS and their netAMP Metering-as-a-Service solution enabled us to receive the support and focus necessary to establish, transition and maintain the full benefits of our new AMI system,” said City of Walker Chief of Operations Jamie Etheridge. “Upgrading to an AMI system is about much more than the AMI technology itself — your vendor partners must help you integrate the technology into new and legacy systems and help train staff on how to make sense of all the new data AMI systems generate.”

 While some utilities find one substantial leak, Walker found many small leaks throughout their network and this added up to massive water loss.

“We view every meter as a cash register,” explained Etheridge. “If it’s only reading at 80 percent accuracy, that’s a lot of unaccounted revenue. Having a very accurate meter is critical to our success.”

Delivering Real Value to Customers

The new AMI system helped the City of Walker improve operational efficiency and ensure accurate monthly billing.

In-lieu of walk-by and drive-by meter reads, the new AMI system collects and sends meter reads to the city’s billing system automatically. UMS and Walker selected Badger Meter ORION® Cellular endpoints to collect data from the smart water meters and then transmit the information safely and securely to the utility’s new Meter Data Management System. The data can be collected in 15-minute intervals and sent up to four times per day. Switching to the AMI solution also freed up valuable staff time that had been spent in the field collecting data.

UMS worked closely with Walker’s billing department to ensure data integration was tested and validated — resulting in accurate billing for Walker residents. The city’s customer service representatives (CSR) receive fewer customer complaints and is also better equipped to intelligently answer water usage questions in real-time due to the advanced data and functionality of the system. The CSRs can now flag unusual water patters, such as sprinkler systems running all night, and advise customers on how to better manage their water usage to avoid expensive bills. The solution also provides more flexibility to manage that usage, including the ability to remotely disconnect or connect meters based on customer usage and behaviors.

“netAMP Metering-as-a-Service and Badger Meter technology allows us to proactively manage and monitor dashboards and be notified immediately of high-water usage,” explains Etheridge. The city is now able to contact customers in near real-time and alert them to problems before the water loss becomes a high expense. We reach-out to our customers on a daily-basis with flagged issues and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Walker estimates more than a 25 percent increase in meter accuracy after upgrading to smart water meters. The improved meter accuracy combined with more data to understand usage behavior is helping the city further decrease its non-revenue water loss.

Walker can now accurately capture water usage, and therefore collect accurate revenue. The improved data empowers customers to make better decisions about how they consume water. When consumers make decisions to use less water, this also benefits the utility because we are making less water and this lowers chemical cost, electricity cost and delivery cost. Accurate water measurement is a win-win for the customer and for the utility. WW

About the Author: Joey Mitchell is vice president of Utility Metering Solutions (UMS). He has more than 12 years of technical and real-world experience assessing, defining, and deploying advanced metering networks for water, gas, and electric utilities. He has held executive leadership positions developing multi-million-dollar sales channels and has been responsible for software integration and professional services teams.

About the Author

Joey Mitchell

Joey Mitchell is vice president at Utility Metering Solutions, based in Raleigh, NC. Mitchell has more than 14 years of experience in the water industry, with leadership roles in business development, operations, finance and marketing.