From large municipal water utilities to those serving rural areas, smart meters are helping managers strategize using the data the meters produce.
“We see water utilities embracing the possibilities offered by increased data,” notes Kali Gerhardt, marketing manager for Kamstrup Water Metering. Many of them are “pleased and surprised by how detailed their meter reads are. They no longer need to round up consumption figures or catch up from the previous month—they can bill in much smaller units now.
“A more precise bill from the water utility can only improve the relationship between the utility and the customer. The customer gets more consistent water bills and they can see exactly how much water they used.”
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Case in point: the City of Prescott, WI, uses Kamstrup meter data in its day-to-day operations serving 2,000 metered accounts. The City installed Kamstrup’s flowIQ 2100 and flowIQ 3101 residential and commercial meters in 2016.
The flowIQ 2100 ranges in meter size from 5/8–¾ inch, a lay length of 7 ½–9 inches, a start flow of .015 gpm, a minimum flow of .10 gpm, and a maximum flow of 25–32 gpm. The flowIQ 3101 ranges in meter size from 1–2 inches (flanged), a lay length of 10 ¾–17 inches, a start flow of .04–.1 gpm, a minimum flow of .25–.5 gpm, and a maximum flow of 55–160 gpm.
Hank Zwart, director of public works, says the driving factor in his utility installing the meters was “experience with other communities knowing that was the wave of the future.” Other factors were mechanical meters and the testing that was required.
“When the smart meters came along, the ultrasonic or mag type meters and the technology to be able to gather the data from the meters had really grown. It was pretty much a decision to adopt the new technology to save a lot of time,” says Zwart.
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One potential use for the smart technology became evident a few years before the system was installed.
“In the winter of 2013 to 2014, we had the fourth highest snow pack ever here,” says Zwart. “We also set the record for most consecutive days below freezing and most consecutive days below zero, which caused frost depths to get down to as much as 11 feet.”
The City had been working on getting the new meter system but didn’t have it in place yet. “In hindsight, we realized how invaluable it would have been to have that information,” says Zwart. With the Kamstrup water meters, Prescott gets 460 days of data logging, he notes. “We can collect that information from the meters at the customer’s request and look back and prove to them that they did use a certain amount of water,” says Zwart.
After the City installed the meters and customers got their first bills, it was evident that the meters and technology were so efficient that they “were concerned and came in to complain that there was no way they used any more water,” he notes. “We patiently told them that they’re absolutely right, but now we’re able to capture 100 percent of the water that they do use.”
The biggest benefit Prescott has derived from the installation of the smart meters is efficiency in reading time, he notes.
“We still had quite a few manual-read meters in town and we went from more than seven working days to read meters with quite a number of errors to reading all of our accounts in an hour and a half now,” says Zwart. “We’ve had the meters installed for more than a year and we have not had a missed read yet.”
Currently, the meters are read by a mobile collector in the City’s 5-mile water service radius. Zwart anticipates that in the City’s next budget talks, the water department will be able to get a fixed network.
“There is a little bit of a drawback to the drive-by technology because there are some alerts that are logged into the meter that cannot be retrieved unless it’s with the fixed network,” he adds.
With Kamstrup’s smart meter technology, the City also located and made repairs in its water distribution system that added up to a savings of 700,000 gallons of non-revenue water in one quarter, says Gerhardt.
FlowIQ 2100 and flowIQ 3101 meters also are being installed to replace meters manufactured by a variety of companies in the service area of the St. Lucie West Services District in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
The district provides water and wastewater services to 6,730 connections in a 2-mile radius from its service area. There is 100% reuse on its wastewater, which provides irrigation to everybody in the service area.
The water meters are for potable water only in the commercial and residential sectors. Water meters range from 5/8–8 inches.
“Through the years, depending on who was managing the department and what deal they could get from one of the manufacturers, that’s what they went with,” notes Joshua Miller, assistant utilities director.
The meters were sourced from five different manufacturers. “They were positive-displacement or mechanical meters and the meters were basically all direct-read. They didn’t have any electronics capability to them. The meter reader had to physically put his eyes on it,” notes Miller.
In 2012, the district opted for a mag meter when it was new to the market, but subsequently had gone through different iterations.
“We started to see a huge failure rate in the meter, whether it was related to the seal not holding or the electronics with moisture getting in or the meter not being accurate,” says Miller. Miller says he has found that mechanical meters “slow down all the time and you lose revenue. The customer doesn’t see much or complain about it. But from our end, we see that. When you have so much water that you’re producing and putting out there but you’re only billing for a percentage, the water loss is coming from somewhere.
“The meters were failing at such a high rate that they weren’t just failing to where they stopped working; they were failing to where they were reading high. The customer would have 1,500 gallons used this month and the next month, they would jump to 30,000. It was all directly related to the meter malfunctioning.”
Before and after of a meter replacement
District employees had been using a touch wand, “which saved from opening the box, digging out dirt and looking at it,” says Miller. “It eventually was going to go to a drive-by system, which is what we’re installing now.”
District officials put out a request for proposal, targeting an ultrasonic specification “because being a water and wastewater municipality, we’re required to calibrate our flow meters and operate the water and wastewater utility through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection annually,” says Miller.
Miller says that typically, the person doing the calibration certification straps an ultrasonic meter onto the pipe to verify the impeller meters, turbine meters, and other types of meters.
“I thought, if they’re that accurate, why don’t we go with the ultrasonic meter for out in the field? Let’s put that out for specifications,” he says. “Kamstrup came forward. I was shocked by the low fail rate they preached and when I started talking with their references, it was true. They have a 0.03% fail rate.
“Our meters were failing on an average of 8% per year. To me, it was a no-brainer to find a solution pretty quickly. In the last 12 months, we crossed the 2,000 mark in installing new meters of the 6,730 we have.”
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Miller says the Kamstrup design is currently building 3- and 4-inch meters.
“We’ve been installing the 5/8-inch to 2-inch meters,” he adds. “This way, the majority of our meters are from the same manufacturer.”
The installation of the Kamstrup meters is being funded through a meter changeout program, with the use of reserve funds for a larger-scale project over the next three years, says Miller.
Within the next five years, the district looks to incorporate AMI into its operation, he adds.
“A lot of customers would love to have that opportunity to log in,” he says. “Some of the AMI programs are cellular, some are fixed networks with Bluetooth or radio frequency. The radio frequency happens to be Kamstrup as well, so you don’t have the cellular fees.
A utility manager carries a Kamstrup flowIQ meter on his way to the installation site.
“We would love to do that. A customer service representative would get a phone call from a customer and bring their account up on the screen and be able to talk about how the meter is in real-time and whether there had been some unusually high flows.”
Pointing out that various regions of the country require different metering applications, Miller says one of the reasons the district favors the Kamstrup flow meter is because it “does not have a water quality disclaimer related to the warranty.”
While it’s still too early to fully assess the meters’ impact on revenues until all of the older meters have been replaced with the Kamstrup meters, Miller says he believes he’s seen an increase that will enable a return on investment in the meters in 18 months.
A couple of the meters that had been changed out date to 1994.
“They are mechanical readers and one of them looked like it barely read the meter,” Miller says. “You put the new one on and it starts reading right away. When we tested that older meter, we found it didn’t even start registering until it got to the three-gallon-per-minute flow rate. Kamstrup begins at .1.”
That means the customers start seeing an increase in their water bills, he says, adding that some customers have responded by conserving more water.
Miller’s advice to other utilities is to do as much research on the options and think long-term when it comes to replacing older meters with smart meters.
Miller says he doesn’t mind changing out the Kamstrup meters with their low failure rate “once every 20 years, compared to a meter that’s failing in five to six. The manufacturers of those meters tell us they will give us more meters, but I have better things for my staff to be doing besides changing meters all day long. I’ve got preventative maintenance issues, leaks to fix, and other issues that I need to resolve besides a meter failing after four years. The biggest factor for me with this particular meter being selected was the lack of need to change it out.”
Informational Data Technologies (IDT) provides a multitude of advancements in metering and data management to augment the simplest solution and provide the best integration to end users, says Amber Thurman, business strategist for IDT.
“We have a basic tool for automating meter reading and, thanks to new technologies, can provide in-line pressure readings, remote shut-off, tank solutions, and even wireless communication between our device and the water meter,” adds Thurman.
IDT also provides satellite AMR/AMI support.
“Satellite collected and delivered data is more convenient and much more reliable than RFID or cellular,” contends Thurman. “The true beauty of satellite is that it works anywhere and the hardware never needs to be upgraded.”
The principals of IDT have more than 45 years of rural water experience through partner companies that serve rural water utilities throughout the upper Midwest, “a region keenly afflicted with low density of meters and harsh conditions,” says Thurman.
The company designed a rural meter reading system that would encompass a standalone field unit built to withstand extreme weather, work for years with no external power, and install in minutes, she adds.
“It also meant web-based reporting, data management, and billing systems that were easy enough for virtually anyone to use,” says Thurman, adding that the system had to have the ability to read multiple manufacturers’ meters with a single device.
In order to manage data, Thurman points out it’s best to find a company focused on data delivery and for their service to be able to work throughout the entire installation.
Most utilities are just coming into the new information, says Thurman, adding that “they all understand the need and are very interested to learn more.”
The system is providing significant efficiencies for the eight employees of the West River/Lyman-Jones Rural Water Systems Inc. (WR/LJ) in South Dakota who are tasked with reading meters covering an 8,000-mile service area.
The challenges of doing so have been so substantial that many customers had to read their own meters, resulting in lost water, inaccurate and delayed payments, and collection challenges.
The deployment of the IDT Water Management System has enabled WR/LJ the ability to obtain daily reads of customer meters via satellite, resulting in saving water, increasing collections, and improving customer relationships, says Thurman.
The IDT Water Management System pairs Satellite Field Units—the company’s name for satellite automatic meter reading devices—with a web-based billing and reporting service called the Cloud, making daily satellite meter reads securely available to utilities from the head office or anywhere a worker can access the web with a secure login, says Thurman.
“Because the system uses satellites, it can communicate with remote meters without the need for fixed radio towers or clustered repeaters,” she adds.
Deploying the IDT Satellite Unit has made a positive difference for WR/LJ operations, notes Jake Fitzgerald, general manager of WR/LJ.
“We were on the self-read, self-bill system and members would go weeks without reading,” says Fitzgerald.
“We wouldn’t know of any discrepancies until we completed an annual meter audit,” he points out. “We’d identify huge water losses on the customer side. The customer would go into bill shock seeing thousands of dollars of usage. Collecting on those bills causes heartburn for everyone.”
Water loss was another challenge faced by WR/LJ, costing countless employee hours, Fitzgerald says. Utility managers noticed high flows using meters not manufactured by IDT.
“But if we couldn’t find a leak on our line, we were out chasing meters—driving out to these remote locations to see how many gallons per minute we were losing at every location,” he adds. “It was slow and expensive for us and for our members. Now, part of our everyday operations is checking the overage alarms that are automatically reported to us each day.”
Narrowing water loss to that level is something the utility had not previously been able to accomplish, notes Fitzgerald, adding, “It’s part of our mornings to call customers whose meters have alarmed. They’re always happy when we call and they know we’re saving them water when we call them. They love that.”
Fitzgerald notes that his utility’s management team had always talked about incorporating a satellite network and a complete billing and accounting system.
Complete Water Management System Satellite AMR/AMI has had many proponents over the past 10 years since the launch of the first generation of mobile satellite services which use low-cost fixed antennas, Thurman points out.
“But in the early years, satellite modems and SCADA devices were generally standalone boards requiring extensive development and integration,” she says. “More recently, satellite companies have developed integrated meter readers with little input from utilities and generally no input from rural water utilities, so the key features that are required for successful deployment have been lacking.”
Fitzgerald and his team were not keen on available options, such as drive-by meter reading.
“A lot of our units are within river breaks and so we knew we had to drive within close range of every meter every month. That’s a lot of miles,” he says, adding that the operating costs were still too high.
Fixed radio systems with towers and repeaters also didn’t offer the desired solution.
“The infrastructure would cost millions of dollars for a system that would read only half of our meters. We wanted a 100% solution,” says Fitzgerald.
While deciding on an approach and developing the final system, WR/LJ worked with DGR Engineering, which provided input on the nature of the system regarding terrain and density limitations, providing estimates of existing systems and longevity.
The conclusion was that IDT would be the most cost-effective approach for a low user-density project such as that with WR/LJ.
Installation Satellite Field Units are freestanding and self-powered, designed to make installation quick and straightforward. The installation partner, Carstensen Contracting, installed approximately two-thirds of the meters for WR/LJ.
WR/LJ completed the process of installing the meter readers in a four-month time frame. Now, the utility gets daily meter reads.
“Before, it used to take us three months just to complete an annual meter reading audit and then another year before we had reliable data,” notes Fitzgerald.
A key part of the IDT system is the Cloud web-based interface, allowing the meter data to seamlessly become part of the utility’s business operations, says Thurman.
WR/LJ managers indicate it’s changed the way it bills its customers. It’s been easier for the staff with less time going into billing, and the customers are happy to get away from the self-read/self-bill system, notes Thurman.