Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and data management software are being increasingly adopted by water utilities to address issues such as water conservation, system maintenance, and future water infrastructure planning.
According to information from Siemens, today’s aging water infrastructure requires $1 trillion in improvements to meet current design standards. “The infeasibility of expertise-wide renewal has led many municipalities to plug gaps with short-term solutions that disproportionately reduce risk and substantially increase expense,” according to company website statements.
“We need to reflect the true cost of water, which has been heavily subsidized at least in North America for some time,” says Larsh Johnson, CTO for eMeter, a Siemens business. “We need to communicate that cost to customers and start to get them sensitive to it. Groundwater depletion, drought conditions, and costs of energy-related processing of water are driving the costs up.”
To be fair to customers, utilities need to start preparing them for rising costs and give them tools to manage water consumption, Johnson says. Utilities in part need to be more efficient in water delivery, capturing losses, and updating infrastructure where needed to ensure the available water is not wasted, he adds.
“Drought certainly has everybody looking at water in new ways,” says Johnson. “The pressures are definitely growing in many parts of the US. The California water situation is going to continue to be challenging for a while, barring some sort of changes. The idea of water and water metering, and using the data in more analytic applications, is a topical issue for utilities.”
Johnson notes that most utilities are now looking at AMI-type solutions as opposed to automatic meter reading (AMR). “We’re seeing that perspectives on data and how to use it are evolving from the basic, ‘we want to reduce our meter-reading costs,’ into ‘we want to optimize our operations.’ Leak detection and conservation programs continue to be the primary data applications, but we’re also going to see more areas for demand response,” he adds. “One of them is related to providing analytic capabilities to the cloud.”
That can go a long way in assisting water utilities, many of which have fewer than 100,000 customers and a small staff to provide service. “A lot of the smart infrastructure that’s going to be required is something that would put a strain on those organizations,” says Johnson. “In many cases, they’re looking at what they can do to leverage and outsource opportunities such as cloud-based software solutions and services.”
Siemens offers a cloud analytics solution for water utilities to leverage a hosted analytic platform that works with existing AMR and AMI investments to acquire and manage data. The company provides hosting for the cloud-based solution. “That lets them focus on analytics, with subject matter experts looking at the data and using the data to analyze leaks, look at customer consumption patterns related to conservation programs, and so forth,” says Johnson. “It’s a benefit for utilities that may be constrained in their IT budgets or resources.”
Siemens’ Smart Water Platform is designed to combine EnergyIP Core Platform functionality with integration and an increasing number of customizable apps. The platform is designed to integrate with a utility’s new or existing metering system, provide actionable data to help address issues before they become problems, provide new ways to engage customers and strengthen relationships, and enable the utility to generate a more predictable revenue stream.
Use of accurate, real-time data enables water utilities to identify necessary repairs in an aging and leaking infrastructure, adapt to changing regulations, and target costly leaks and meter errors for more informed capital investments. The wireless technology enables the utility to detect issues from anywhere on the grid, including difficult-to-reach meters.
The Smart Water Platform serves as a repository for all distribution network instrumentation, automatically collecting meter data to analyze, interpret, and centralize it to make it more easily understood.
Johnson points out that “there is a growing understanding of the losses and the efficiencies that are an issue in water utilities. Efficiency gains in metering operations are driven by costs as well as data applications that justify that investment. Those pressures haven’t necessarily changed.
“What’s happening with drought conditions is the cost of water and the potential for those costs going up dramatically is what has people looking to accelerate their plans,” he says. “We’ve seen that going on for the last year, and water utilities are looking more closely at these investments and moving towards an AMI solution with a focus on meter data management, and the analytics that can result from that.”
Siemens offers consumer Web portal products that allow a customer to subscribe to information about what they’re using and get alerts when their usage exceeds certain parameters. The proactive tools are helpful to consumers who might otherwise unknowingly face a huge bill that they weren’t expecting and allows them to understand how they’re using water and what they can do to improve their water use,” says Johnson.
At a recent water symposium in Fort Worth, TX—H204 Texas—state officials brainstormed ideas on funding the state’s water future and what infrastructure would be necessary to ensure ongoing water resources.
Ian MacLeod, vice president of marketing for Master Meter, presented at the seminar. The discussions strengthened his belief that it’s time for a culture shift from focusing merely on meter data management (MDM), to the role it plays in a greater issue: exploring the relationship between a region’s long-term economic viability and its water supply.
“We must have a culture shift with regards to our respect for water,” says MacLeod. “It’s about understanding and appreciating all that goes in to treat, pump, deliver, and bill potable water and then process the effluent afterwards.”
While issues such as desalination and aquifer recovery were discussed at the symposium (“We’re able to shake the rocks to get gas out of the ground—what are we going to do to get more water out of the ground?” MacLeod asks), there are other issues of concern.
“The bottom line about Texas and water is we don’t want any cities to go dry, but if we want to have a robust economy and continue to attract businesses to the state of Texas, we need to show that we have a long-term water plan,” he says. “Some businesses have possibly considered not coming here in fear that they won’t have the water required for processing whatever the manufacturing is that they’re doing.”
It’s a concern that transcends Texas borders and is one in which data management may play a key role in providing information leading to more solutions.
MacLeod says he believes that while the word “conservation” is what gets most bantered around with respect to water, “For me, it’s really about water preservation. You’re trying to preserve the water you have, make it last longer, and be more accountable for it: keep it inside the pipes and know how to manage that to minimize leaks.”
For its part, Master Meter is rolling out a new AMI solution—Allegro—and a new MDM solution—Harmony—during the first half of 2015. The technology has been beta tested in Mansfield, TX, where MacLeod notes a pilot project is faring well by achieving a 100% read rate on the thousands of units in place with water consumers adopting use of the smartphone app.
Master Meter’s new products require reduced infrastructure. “Our end points are operating at four watts of power, which is very powerful,” points out MacLeod. “The antennae are fully embedded under the glass just like our Dialog 3G AMR platform. We’re going to have true two-way communication with the end point, and we’ll be able to do systemwide firmware upgrades over time to ensure that the system is always capable of working with the latest technology.”
While Allegro is designed to offer reliable data, “the special sauce is in the Harmony software,” says MacLeod. “That’s where the real value is. The AMI part of the equation is not a commodity yet for any of us. We can all make some great claims as to what it can do, but it’s in our Harmony software that the utility can leverage the data and realize meaningful change.”
To help achieve those goals, Master Meter has rolled out its “smart app” for both iOS and Android devices. Utilities can thus manage data and take action on leaks, MacLeod says.
Master Meter can host the data.
“Some utilities, particularly the larger ones, prefer to do that onsite, but the reality is for some of these mid-sized and smaller utilities, they don’t have the wherewithal and the technical infrastructure capability,” says MacLeod. “The amount of data we’re talking about: hourly reads, 24 reads a day for thousands of customers can be an overwhelming amount of data. We provide that hosting for them, and we would sell the solution as a hosted service model.”
The real value is in empowering the ratepayer, he adds.
“The ratepayer is ultimately responsible for how much water they use, turning off a faucet or not, and managing their own water budgets to avoid having to cut off services for underpayment,” says MacLeod. “The greatest value will be in its ability to put data in front of the end user in real time through handheld phone apps or through custom portals via the Internet, and empower them to better control and take charge of their own water use.”
Master Meter’s technology is designed to holistically present data and offer a greater understanding of the true workings of a water distribution system, MacLeod says.
“When you can get data involved, and then if you were to tie in outputs from the SCADA system into your Meter Data Management solution, now you can set up district metered areas and zones,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could have layers of data showing various pressures throughout the system and then correlate that to different amounts of water that is leaking? The higher the pressure in the system—if there are any cracks or a bad gasket somewhere—the higher the pressure will force more water out. By having a more holistic view of the data, you’re looking at pressure zones and pressure-regulating valves to mitigate high-pressure areas, and hence the leaks that relate to that.”
The technology enables a utility to respond better to a leak, break, or service order, MacLeod says. “With geocoding, we can present the location of every worker in the field, and you can now more efficiently dispatch units to where there may be a trouble spot and proactively address leaks or customer service issues in the field,” he adds. “Not only do you get a quicker resolution, you save water if it’s a main break or other kind of leak issue. Your human assets can be more effectively dispatched, enabling them with data in hand to become customer service agents in the field. It creates a far more efficient water preservation-focused utility.”
The learning curve is made easier with software that doesn’t look like it requires an engineering degree to use it, he says. “As an example, our phone app for the iPhone is a glass of water that the consumer can look at every day as it shows the glass filling up during the course of the month. It also has budgets for how much you plan on spending,” says MacLeod. “It’s put in very clear layman’s terms how much water you’re using, and how much you might expect to pay at the end of the month.”
The software for the utility side is more detailed, but is designed to be more user-friendly, he adds. “What’s going to be a longer learning curve is changing the mindset about the importance of water, the limited supply of water, and how we need to make it last longer,” says MacLeod.
The ability to bring the ratepayer into the fold with the technology offers a different approach than the historical one of manufacturers and vendors in focusing the message on the utility, MacLeod says. “In reality, all a utility can do is ask ratepayer to use less water in a drought and check for leaks,” says MacLeod. “That’s somewhat effective, but like here in Texas, people feel ‘If I can afford my water, I’ll use as much of it as I want.’ We’re lone wolves sometimes.”
Empowering the ratepayer with real-time information can produce the “shame effect,” particularly in a drought area, says MacLeod. For instance, comparing water use to other similar households offers a more accurate understanding of where one household stands relative to others, he adds.
“With this technology, we’re able to have ratepayers not only understand in real time what they’re using, but how much they’re using relative to their neighbors,” he says. “It’s that kind of insight and data put down into the hands of the ratepayer through very clear and easy-to-digest data presentment that will make the biggest difference with this technology. You can only do so much at the utility level. You have to empower and enlighten the ratepayer.”
“In the past, the water utility collected one reading for billing purposes only,” points out Steve Bruskiewicz, product/enterprise manager of water solutions for Aclara. “This reading most likely was collected on a quarterly or other time basis. The reading only had one basis, and that was for billing purposes. With today’s AMI network, the utility has the opportunity to collect data on an hourly, or even tighter, timeframe if needed.”
While the data is still used for billing purposes, there is significantly more than can be done with it, Bruskiewicz says.
Analytics may be used to conduct a water balance with time-synchronized readings to determine water and revenue loss. They also can be used to identify bad or under-performing water meters and verify that the proper meter size and type is in use at a specific location. The data also may be accessed by end users to determine their usages over time, as well as compare their usages and conservation efforts to like users throughout the community.
Aclara’s latest technologies include STAR ZoneScan leak detection, which applies correlation techniques to data collected from acoustic loggers to identify and locate leaks throughout the distribution system.
Aclara’s STAR_prestige analytics package allows utilities to understand non-revenue water losses and meter issues by analyzing data collected by the AMI network. “In addition to applying data analysis to the customer side of the equation, they can apply analytics to solve operational problems such as meter right-sizing and right-typing,” says Bruskiewicz. “The data may be used to monitor and control the distribution system through the use of sensors and control to maintain and monitor water pressure and other system parameters.
“The collection of data is key in identifying leak locations and how much water is being lost through various types of authorized and unauthorized consumption and losses identified in the AWWA water audit,” points out Bruskiewicz. “The data may be used to identify areas of need and is key in the creation of long-term capital improvement plans to allow the utility to better manage its assets.”
For customers, “the key benefit of data is accurate billing, which eliminates estimated bills and allows for budgeting,” says Bruskiewicz. Also, usage reports “allow customers to get a feel for whether there are on-premise leaks before they turn into expensive headaches. Usage reports can also act as an accountability tool to encourage conservation efforts and to compare usage and efforts to similar users within the community.”
Utilities with strong IT departments can do their own data management, depending on the size of the utility and its capabilities, Bruskiewicz says, adding that Aclara can manage data for utilities through its hosted AMI solutions. In the future, look for development of additional algorithms for analyzing data and getting more detailed information, he says. “Algorithms have been created that will analyze the collected data and identify areas of water loss through water meter and pressure data within district metering areas.”
Aclara’s Series 3000 two-way fixed-network AMI is being used in Redmond, OR, to drill down deeper for data to help the city’s conservation efforts. It had been difficult to do so with a single monthly meter read, which the city had previously been doing through a contracted meter-reading company.
In 2006, the city installed Aclara’s STAR to obtain AMR through 15 data collectors, offering four readings a day. In 2012, Redmond installed Aclara’s Series 3000 two-way, fixed-network AMI providing time-synchronized daily readings at the top of the hour. The city can utilize Aclara’s MTUs by reprogramming them to adjust meters down to 1/10 of a cubic foot to detect a leak of 7 gallons per minute.
Redmond uses Aclara’s data in its GIS system to generate color-coded maps for conservation purposes and show average citywide residential water use. Redmond has a water distribution infrastructure of wells that pump water into the main distribution system of 164 miles of pipe to satisfy demand, with excess water redirected into reservoirs. The system serves a population of about 27,000 through some 10,000 end points, with most of the metered accounts primarily residential.
“We were looking first and foremost at accurate billing rates without having to roll rigs into the field or pay a contracting meter-reading company,” says Josh Wedding, water operations manager for Redmond, of the city’s move to AMI. “We were looking for more efficient billing reads. Once we received those accurate billing reads, we realized we had a lot more resources and a lot more data coming in than we anticipated, so we started setting up projects based on that data coming.”
One of the ways in which the data management is being used is to monitor irrigation practices: Redmond allows irrigation from April through October, with pumps producing 11.5 million gallons a day. November through March are non-irrigation months, although residents can water shrubs and gardens.
“It helps with conservation, making sure we’re using water wisely,” says Wedding. “Secondly, it helps us out with our internal practices. We can run audits daily, but monthly is what we choose to do.”
The water audit information is conveyed to the state to show monthly non-revenue for water loss.
With Aclara technology monitoring the demand side meters, Redmond is able to get a sense of its total real water loss, says Wedding.
“You’ve got your actual water loss and your apparent water loss,” he points out. “We can run calculations based on AWWA standards to figure out where our actual water loss is occurring, and where our apparent water loss is.
“We use them to find broken meters in the field. We use them to alert customers of demand side leaks. We use it as internal alerts for demand side leaks. We use it for meter trending to look for inefficiencies in the meter based on consumption over time.”
Wedding says the learning curve on using the software wasn’t too steep. “We adjusted to it fairly well coming from manual meter reads, and all of a sudden we’ve got this software,” he says. “We started out from a base standpoint of knowing how to verify reads, and making sure the correct read is coming in and it’s going to the correct customer.”
The utility then slowly implemented it in different phases, leading to further advances on what to do with the software.
Wedding’s advice to other utilities seeking to implement such technology is to set up meetings with other utilities who have it.
“We were on the leading edge with this—there weren’t a lot of utilities in the nation that had metering software like this,” he says. “If I could put myself in today’s position and just knowing what the industry has put out there, I would contact a lot of the other utilities and ask them about all of the efficiencies—the pros and the cons with the program that they use.”
Neptune Technology Group
There are many driving factors toward an increasing desire of data management and more sophisticated technology to provide it, notes Dave Hanes, director of strategic marketing for the Neptune Technology Group.
One is going from quarterly to hourly readings has increased data volumes by 2,160-fold, he says. Another factor: an aging workforce.
“With about 50% of the water utility workforce eligible to retire in five years, utilities will face a tremendous loss of knowledge and productivity if they continue with business as usual,” he says. “Systems to increase efficiency and capture institutional knowledge are needed to help with the transition.”
Additionally, there’s the concept of “one water”—an increased emphasis on removing data silos within the utility, requiring integration, analysis, and sharing of different types of data, he adds.
Neptune Technology Group’s most widely-used technology is the R900 RF radio frequency technology. Hanes points out that it supports migration from mobile to fixed-network without the need to reprogram or upgrade endpoints. It is integrated with the E-Coder register to offer enhanced data capabilities such as leak, reverse, and no-flow flags without the need for post-processing.
The company’s newest technologies include the MACH 10 ultrasonic meter, designed with a flat accuracy curve, stable accuracy over time, and no lead bronze body.
The NGO is a downloadable app that enables utilities to retrieve and display data logged information in the meter through their Android device, says Hanes. “This information can be presented or emailed to the homeowner to show usage history,” he adds.
Water utilities can leverage data to its fullest potential through the use of analytics tools, enabling the system to convert data into actionable information. “Sharing of data and information across the utility between the back office and field personnel—and from the system to the consumer—is critically important to enabling the value of the system to be realized,” he explains.
Those best suited to manage the data depends on the utility and its IT capabilities. “Those utilities that have fewer IT resources or are trying to manage their IT spending may be more interested in outsourcing the data management function through a hosted ‘managed service’ approach,” he says.
“Neptune has adopted a ‘don’t make me think’ approach to system design,” says Hanes. “Instead of hunting for information through endless data, the user is presented with the information they need in order to effectively manage their systems.”
Data is “extremely important” for sound decision-making and planning, he says.
One example of the value of data-driven decision-making tools is IDModeling’s Sedarū, which is able to consume data generated by Neptune’s AMR/AMI systems. “This data, including consumption flags, is then provided to field crews for investigation,” he adds. “Sedarū also uses these inputs to generate data-driven hydraulic models that identify potential pressure issues in the distribution system.”
One way in which data is useful to customers is through leak flags and historical usage information that are generated by the meter, which can alert the consumer to water loss issues within the home, Hanes says. “Neptune’s N_SIGHT IQ provides a consumer web portal that enables this information to be provided directly to the user, greatly reducing the lag between when an event occurs and when the consumer is made aware of it,” he adds.
N_SIGHT IQ provides water utilities with the ability to store and analyze up to 10 years of homeowners’ consumption data, along with advanced analytics based on historical trends and flagged consumption events. Additionally, the cloud-based application offers homeowners access to view, track, and manage information on their water usage, including alerts for consumption anomalies.
Looking ahead, Hanes says as more types of utility data are linked with the AMR/AMI data, “a richer view of the utility is possible.
“Data silos that have existed because of utility structure and the static nature of paper reports are quickly being overcome,” he adds. “Neptune with its N_SIGHT IQ and its partner IDModeling’s Sedarū facilitate easy sharing of information throughout the utility.”
Case in point: the cause of a series of reverse flow occurrences may not be ready available when this data is viewed in a data table, says Hanes. “However, when this information is mapped, patterns can be determined that may help identify the root cause and ultimately the solution,” he adds.
Hanes points out that CIP decision-making and priority setting has traditionally been based on “the experience and gut feel of the manager. As the data becomes increasingly integrated, decision-makers are now able to consider multiple variables in order to develop their priorities,” he says. “Equally as important, these data-driven decisions are now defensible.”
In 2009, Neptune was awarded replacement of the city of Dubuque, IA’s water meters through a Request for Proposals in a competitive bid process for installation of water meters, a meter interface unit on every house and a propagation study for approximately how many wireless collectors would be needed. The collectors were installed at 15 sites.
Dubuque’s water utility is part of its city’s government services, and serves approximately 23,000 water customers for a population of 58,000.
“We were able to leverage on those collectors a lot of existing fiber optics backhauls that we had from a network that was built through IT projects, traffic projects or an institutional network that was installed by our local cable company, Mediacomm, seven years ago as part of our franchise agreement,” says Chris Kohlmann, information services manager. Because of that, the utility was able to quickly gather a lot of data on the fiber-optic backbone, she adds.
At the time that Dubuque was installing the meters, IBM also was seeking a mid-sized city with a population between 50,000 and 200,000 for its Smarter Cities laboratory project.
“Dubuque also was being looked at as a site for one of IBM’s first on-shore service centers,” says Kohlmann. “One of the folks on the site selection committee looked at our work with sustainability, as well as our projects where we’ve done a lot of community engagement, and said Dubuque was a place where they thought they could do this pilot.”
Neptune partnered with the city and IBM in order to provide meter-reading data.
“At the beginning of the project, IBM acquired 15-minute reads, so we worked with Neptune on its R900 product,” says Kohlmann. “As the project continued, they were able to get the same analytics from hourly reads, so we used the R450 AMI product, which was what was specified for the majority of the city in Neptune’s RFP proposal. They worked in terms of formatting the data, helping us to transmit the data to an intermediate FTP site, and do some pre-processing through a third-party partner.”
Dubuque created a pilot study of 400 volunteers in the city who regularly monitored their water usage and reported leaks. The result: a 6.6% reduction in water usage and an 11-fold increase in the amount of reported leaks.
Dubuque has an incentive program for residents to fix leaks, providing 50% up to $100 on leak repair costs. The portal enabled residents to more quickly identify and address leaks.
Kohlmann says that while Dubuque had done several pilots around electricity, travel, and health with IBM, “I don’t think IBM was ready for the pricing model that would fit middle-sized cities. It wasn’t their fault,” she adds. “It’s just that they were more tuned in and accustomed to working with large metropolitan areas with this kind of technology. As a leave-behind, they really didn’t have much for us at the time. Now they do have a marketable product and have gone on to market this to towns in Australia and Miami-Dade County, Florida.”
Kohlmann says the “real take-away that we had from this and the other pilots were the power the data provides to an organization. Neptune was seeing this and had a portal which was not as detailed, eloquent, or as full of analytics as the IBM piece, but it had what we determined people needed.”
What people need is to know how much water they were using, when they were using it, and some rudimentary comparative data enabling them to be cognizant of how their water consumption stacks up in relation to others’, she adds.
To that end, Dubuque offers its residents DBQ IQ, part of the Neptune IQ products, free of charge. DBQ IQ is a water management dashboard providing volunteer users online access to water usage data specific to their utility account.
While the IBM portal was offered primarily to residents, the DBQ IQ is offered for all of the water utility’s 23,000 customers.
“The primary uptake has been in terms of people who are landlords or property managers of multiple family units,” says Kohlmann. “They can get a leak alert or a high-usage alert via text message or e-mail informing them that there’s a property using an exorbitant amount of water.”
The information is not immediate, but offers the data within a day of when the collectors transmit it. Kohlmann says the real value of data management is appreciated in the back of the house when customer service folks get a call asking why their bill is so high. “They can immediately open up the same kind of portal that the resident can and see what they were using hourly,” says Kohlmann.
A discussion may ensue during which the water consumer realizes that they may have been doing a lot of watering in the garden on a warm day or they had company at the house. “It definitely gives a more informed answer to a customer,” she adds.
Data can be compared to a previous year and flag possible upward use trends. “If I can look at a portal where I can see day by day and hour by hour, then I can pinpoint to you pretty quickly just from a visual observation that these are high-use days or—by the way—you have a leak,” says Kohlmann of the data’s customer service capabilities.
“There is some outreach that some of our customer service folks do with deviation and leak reports. They’ll do some outbound calling to give water consumers a heads-up that they’re having a usage pattern that’s a little out of the ordinary.”
The driving factor for the IBM project was the opportunity to “marry well into our sustainability process,” notes Kohlmann. “In Dubuque, we have abundant water, and it’s priced very reasonably. There’s not a whole lot of incentive from a financial standpoint, or because we’re going to run out. It’s about educating folks. People begin to see a relationship between water and other things.”
The city has also done so through training sessions called “community cafes.” An older couple that had been seeking guidance on how to use the portal had learned that they were using more water than usual at about 6:30 p.m. each night.
“We told them to come in, and we’d talk to them if what they were seeing on the portal wasn’t making sense,” says Kohlmann. “The husband wanted to know why the water use was high at that time, and the wife said that’s when they ran the dishwasher. Very quickly they started to think if that appliance is that inefficient with use of water, they could not imagine what it did with the electricity.” The couple contemplated replacing the dishwasher with a more efficient appliance to address both water and energy efficiency.
“When we look at what we call a smarter city, to me a smarter city is empowering your citizens with information that’s unique to them to do the things they want,” says Kohlmann. “The incentive here wasn’t driven by water shortages, but the incentive to the citizen is ‘I’m smart, I’m sustainable, and I’m armed with data. Look what I can do.'”
The city conducted a survey on the use of the “smart” technology, with respondents indicating that the primary benefit they derived was a greater understanding of the services they receive.
“That’s pretty empowering,” says Kohlmann. “The extreme comes in where you have a case like states with water shortages where it becomes a ‘must know’ so they can make some of those behavior and appliance changes and quickly be able to see the end results that roll up into the entire community in aggregate. In Miami-Dade County, they were able to restore some city programs through money saved on leak repairs where they were consuming a huge amount of water across the board, whether it was in swimming pools or irrigation systems.”
One factor that leads to the success of such technology is that “the eloquence is in the simplicity of it,” notes Kohlmann. “When you make it very straightforward and visually simplistic, even though there’s a lot going on under the engine, so to speak, that’s where it makes the most sense.”
Kohlmann references a normalized bell curve regarding users of the technology: “You have 20% on either end and 60% in the middle,” she says. “The 20% are the ‘freaks and the geeks,’ the ones who want to be enlightened with more data and figure things out themselves.
“Most people are in that middle 60% who want to be informed and want help understanding the information and guidance on behaviors. Then there’s the 20% group that say, ‘I’m not going to change my behavior—but warn me when I have a leak, and when I’m using a lot of water. It’s all about choice. I don’t want to change, but if I’m doing something bad, turn the red light on and sound off the alarm’.”
Kohlmann says there are a few factors that lead people to continue to be engaged with the technology. “Once I fix my leaks and do all of the behavior changes, then why would I bother coming back? Maybe you’re going to provide me with some new information and try to get me to attend an event. Maybe it’s the eloquence of the simplicity of presentation.
“When you’re doing your performance measures, talk about what it used to look like when you didn’t have this and what it looks like now through a quantifiable metric.”
Kohlmann says her advice to other utilities considering doing something similar is to have a partnership with other entities, such as Dubuque has had with Neptune and Ferguson Water Works.
“We needed to see them as a partner to our city rather than just a contracted vendor and would do what’s in the spec, nothing more and nothing less,” she says. “They were very much a voice at the table that had experience, and were able to draw upon that experience and create a good conversation about the smarter city project and what it eventually left behind.
“The other piece we learned is even though we loved the experience we got with IBM, it’s about leveraging investments and existing technology,” adds Kohlmann. “If you’re already going to do a meter replacement, and you’ve got an opportunity to get some additional data, really work with the vendor to see what is possible in terms of leveraging what you’re already doing and take it to the next step to present either to your customer service folks or to the public.”
Such projects also require an investment of time on how to place the collectors and do backhauls of the information. “You should get as many partners who are stakeholders to the table as possible,” says Kohlmann. “This wasn’t just a water department project, or the customer service project, or an IT project. I think there were times we had anywhere from eight to 10 different departments that had a little bit of information that together helped us have some key success on this whole thing.”
Based on its work with Dubuque, Neptune was named a grand-prize winner in the first Amazon Web Services’ “Amazon City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge,” which recognizes applications that solve local government challenges.
Neptune received the award for its N_SIGHT IQ intelligent analytics software for utilities that run on the Amazon Web Services cloud-computing network. Dubuque was one of the early adopters of the application.
Itron’s latest technology is ChoiceConnect, an AMI solution. Data reported through communication modules offers reports on event flags and tamper flags, as well as other pieces of information.
The data is transmitted through a fixed-network through a pole top device and proceeds to the utility’s head end system and is then pushed to its billing platform as well as Itron’s analytics, which analyzes and stores the data.
“One of the biggest drivers for our system is the time-synchronized interval data,” notes Joe Ball, Itron’s director of marketing. “Our AMI system for residential customers delivers hourly data back to the utility and they can understand the consumption patterns of their customers hourly throughout the day.”
The granular information—used in conjunction with an analytics tool and data storage—gives the utility the ability to use the data in a variety of ways, such as creating comparisons and developing demand profiles to determine the best way to pump water throughout the distribution system and leverage the data across different departments, Ball says.
A customer portal can enable a customer service representative to analyze nuances in a billing period that spark inquiries, he adds. The technology can pave the way for future planning, Ball says.
“A utility will create demand profiles based upon historic data,” he says. “By collecting more granular interval data, this will give them the ability to continually update that hydraulic model, which will give them a better understanding of the amount of water being used in certain areas and how they may change pipe fittings, valves, what size storage tanks they may need, and what type of pumps they may need.
“It gives them a strong tool to be able to plan any additional maintenance or changes to assets.”
The system is best operated through a hosted cloud environment or qualified IT entity, especially for small- to medium-sized utilities, Ball says.
In Madison, WI, it was evident that the city’s previous meter-reading approach would be reaching the end of its lifespan, with the manufacturer of the city’s older model meters indicating it would no longer be casting dies for that particular meter.
“That forced us to take a look at how we wanted to read meters and if we wanted to go with AMR or AMI,” notes Robin Piper, customer service manager for Madison Water Utility. “We decided we wanted to jump past the AMR. We didn’t want to continue to roll vehicles out to read meters. We wanted to take advantage of the newer technology with the fixed-network and get data sent directly to us.”
Another driving factor to update Madison’s system dates to 2008, when the utility created its own conservation plan, which included the goal to reduce residential water use 20% by the year 2020 in order to serve the growing community without having to install new wells and pumping systems.
“The Madison area is considered water-rich compared to a lot of areas in the country,” says Piper. “There are a lot of people here who are very interested in conservation and don’t want us to deplete what we have so there will still be water available for their grandkids.”
Madison Water Utility has 68,000 meters in its 94-square-mile service area of 235,000 residents. In summer of 2012, the city’s utility proceeded with an AMI-fixed-network project through Itron’s smart water metering solution. The city’s utility subcontracted the work of endpoint installations. Most of the meters are in basements indoors, with the exception of some wholesale customers. Fewer than 100 meters do not have endpoints.
Previous to that, the city had a remote-read system in which three meter readers read 68,000 meters twice a year. The city was divided into six sections and billed one of the six sections each month.
The city now does monthly billing with the AMI system.
Madison also offered a customer portal with the AMI system. Through that portal, customers can view their hourly data usage and set up notifications for exceedance of water usage goals on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
Piper says while the city has done a “soft release” of the portal, there are a lot of customers signing up for it.
“The data is being returned by a repeater into a collector on an hourly basis to our Itron fixed-network collection engine, and then on a daily basis we have that data exported to our meter data management software,” says Piper.
Madison’s water utility uses MeterSense from Harris Computer Systems. MeterSense offers analytics that feature rate-impact analysis reporting and a loss analysis tool that calculates and analyzes loss profiles at various distribution points.
MeterSense automates interval data import and register reads from AMR and AMI systems, VEE (validation, estimation and editing), calculates billing determinants, and exports them to enterprise billing systems.
In addition to analyzing usage, the data management software also helps counter non-technical losses and interprets smart meter tamper-event notifications and “intelligent” responses based on the context.
Piper says MeterSense was chosen because Harris Computer Systems also owns CIS Infinity, the city’s billing software. “They were willing to work together for us to be able to mine the billing data out of MeterSense,” he adds.
As the Madison Water Utility is regulated by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, if the utility wanted to pursue any form of conservation rates—including a seasonal rate for summertime use in the region’s peak time—the utility would have to bill more frequently and do it more efficiently, notes Piper.
“We talked about giving more tools to our customers to be able to have more control over their water use,” he says.
The previous six-month billing only offered two data points a year, creating a challenge for water customers if there had been a circumstance that was preventing them from conserving water.
For example: the only way a water consumer could tell if the length of a shower was making a difference, they’d have to go into the basement, read the meter before they took a shower, and record the data after the shower, Piper points out. “We wanted to get a tool out to the customers and be able to provide hourly usage data to them so they could see exactly what’s going on,” he adds.
Since it launched on October 15, more than 500 people started using the tool, with nearly 100 setting notifications on water consumption, Piper says, adding that he expects greater participation “once we start touting it.”
The system also enables the utility to do more precise future planning, Piper says. Previously, the water utility tried to do forecasts based on the two data point a year. “Now we’re able to provide much more accurate data,” he says. “We’ll be able to see when individual classes use the water, who’s using it, and where.”
Madison Water Utility is using the data in its latest rate increase application filed with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. The utility hasn’t filed one for four years, says Piper.
“It helps refine the charges for the individual customer classes so that they more closely reflect the demand on the system,” says Piper. “The Wisconsin Public Service Commission hasn’t had data that’s Wisconsin-specific. They’ve had to use data that’s been collected across the country. They’re very interested in seeing the results of our analysis of the data that we’ve put together for this.”
Madison Water Utility has integrated its SCADA & GIS into the system to be able to have better data for the utility’s different departments, Piper says. Madison has 11 pressure zones and 22 wells.
“For example, we want to be able to take a look at pressure zone number 10, know how much water was pumped in through the wells, what was is in the reservoirs and what the tank levels were, and compare that with what actually went through the customer meters in that area to see if there is a large discrepancy and focus our attention then on finding leaks that we don’t know about in the distribution system,” says Piper.
“We’re hoping to be able to tighten up our distribution system that way by doing some district metering and monitoring that we haven’t been able to do in the past without having that data available to us,” he adds.
There are more ways to leverage the technology. “There are some tools out there that will help us make sure that we have the meter sized right for the amount of water that’s flowing to a building, especially in the commercial and industrial cases,” says Piper.
Along the way, there have been challenges.
“We had to create an opt-out policy for our customers who did not want the technology on their premises,” notes Piper. “We have about 460 customers out of our 68,000 meters that just didn’t want to have an end point. We have to go out and manually read their meters or estimate their usage and charge them a non-standard meter fee.” Piper notes the number is small enough that it shouldn’t affect the utility’s search for distribution system leaks.
There also were political “hiccups” with differences in opinions among elected officials about the need for the project that temporarily threatened it. It was eventually ironed out once utility managers drove home the point that the old system was no longer viable, Piper notes.
“You have to keep selling the project and keep everybody in the know as to what you’re doing, so it doesn’t fall off of people’s radar and they don’t think it’s not important,” says Piper. That applies to the water consumers as well as municipal leaders, he adds.
“We have customers in Madison who think they know better than the people who are actually doing the job on what should be done,” says Piper. “You have to make sure you’re letting them know you’ve considered a lot of things, and this is the best route for us to go.”
The utility engaged in open houses throughout the city and hosted educational sessions for the Madison Common Council on almost a quarterly basis to keep them informed of the project’s process.
Piper also learned it was important to continue communications with vendors and IT departments to keep people on task with the timeline. “We didn’t stay as close to the timeline for getting the customer usage up and the monthly billing up and running,” he says. “There were a lot of details. I wish we could just flip a switch and things would work, but there’s a lot of work in the background to get things going.”
Another lesson learned: “Before we started this project and signed the contract with Itron, we did some site visits to utilities,” says Piper. “We went to Glendale and Burbank, California and talked to them about how it was going, and didn’t really think too much about the fact that Glendale and Burbank have their meters out in pits and they didn’t really have to contact their customers to get inside or tell them what they were doing. In some instances, they just installed it.
“We learned early on that we had to communicate with our internal and external customers and get everybody on board to make sure that everybody was understanding what we were trying to accomplish, and that we were trying to go in the same direction,” he adds.
All of Madison Water Utility’s capital projects are generated from revenue bonds repaid over 20 years, which is the same warranty time period for the meter endpoints, Piper says.
Madison is deriving “real improvements and benefits from the system,” notes Ball. “They’ve been using some of the features and functionality with the granular data in our communication modules to be able to identify customer side leaks and have been proactive in communicating with those customers. The added data that they’re able to utilize for high bill complaints has helped them solve some billing queries quickly.”
Badger Meter’s latest technology is the Beacon Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) managed solution. The solution takes a “proactive look” at providing data and information for utilities and is run as a hosted solution, says John Fillinger, director of utility marketing for Badger Meter.
“That allows us to offer it as a managed platform for utilities,” he says. “It supports the ability for them to easily scale, to get up and running, and eliminate the number of the costs they’d need to support it both from the IT perspective, purchasing the hardware upfront and then getting the benefit of the proactive data that can help drive efficient operations of the utility. Essentially the burden is turned back to Badger Meter to provide the most up-to-date software and service to be able to get the reads back through the system. It’s allowing utilities to focus on what they do best, which is being a water utility.”
Once the data is hosted, Badger Meter allows utilities to have access to the information from just about anywhere there is an Internet-connected electronic device, Fillinger says. “They’re not necessarily tied down to a license that’s only used at the utility,” he says. “They have the flexibility of using it wherever they are located. In addition, once we get into a hosted environment, we are also able to bring the end water consumer into the equation by providing data to them to help them become an educated consumer of water.”
That helps with reducing the number of inquiry calls to a utility, he adds.
“They would then have the ability to look at the data themselves, figure out how much water they used when the irrigation system went on, and become a partner in that understanding of how and when water is used,” says Fillinger.
The technology is designed to be user-friendly.
“As part of a hosted solution, the Beacon AMA software is very user-intuitive,” says Fillinger. “It has more of an Apple look and feel; it prompts users in the direction of what needs to be done next.”
And because it is a hosted application, Badger Meter aims to build a community of users. “That community of users will be leveraged so if one customer has found a way that works well for them to process the information, that could be shared across the community,” says Fillinger. “We want them to share experiences and to be able to come together and have trainings at the same time.”
Because the Beacon AMA system offers the ability to use the available cellular network without having to deploy a gateway that would be used to build a proprietary network for collecting reads, it enables a utility to hit the ground running without having to deploy any additional network infrastructure, Fillinger says.
“The flexibility of the system allows the utility to install one end point and be done or to migrate through the entire service territory for thousands or hundreds of thousands of units, depending upon what is best for the utility,” he adds.
All of the data that comes in is time-synchronized on an hourly basis, says Fillinger. The system also offers the ability to tie in to the meters. “You can measure it before it goes out into the system and compare usage,” he says. “If you wanted to look at the 500 accounts that are downstream from a master meter that’s measuring the flow before it gets into the subdivision, you could then do a comparison of the readings that the 500 meters make up versus the master meter that’s there before the subdivision.
“You can then do a comparison to find out where your meter accuracies are or if there’s a leak somewhere else in the system that would need to be addressed,” he adds. “You also have the ability when you get those additional data points to do balancing if that’s a concern for the utility. There’s a lot that the utility can do with this additional data, other than just providing a read for billing purposes.”
That is important in helping a region reach its long-term goals, he says.
“There are a number of states today where water is more scarce, such as in California because of the drought situation,” says Fillinger. “The state has mandates in place where they have to reduce usage by 20% by the year 2020. All of those factors are coming into play in which utilities are looking for a way to understand and to reduce usage.”
While Fillinger credits utilities for “doing a good job at wringing out all of the excesses that they can,” it’s a partnership with the water consumer that creates the greatest success, he says. “The utility can only do so much. By partnering with customers and providing data, they join together to be able to come up with a solution to help understand and use water efficiently.”
In addition to its water-conserving benefits, Beacon AMA also goes a long way in increasing customer service, Fillinger says. “We have utilities close to the Great Lakes that are putting in a Beacon AMA system and providing information back to their end consumers not necessarily because they want or have to conserve—because water is more abundant here—but because they want to increase customer service,” he says.
There comes a time for some utilities when a fixed-network makes sense, Fillinger says.
“They need to get hourly read data. They need to monitor usage so they can monitor the even/odd sprinkling bans or the conservation efforts they want to put in place,” Fillinger says.
“The next step in that thought process on a traditional fixed-network system is understanding and figuring out where gateways will be located,” he adds. “That’s a process in and of itself. You may need to get approvals from the cities depending on the water district if it’s a water district in relationship to the city. There may not be infrastructure points located throughout the city in order to support a system.” The new technology takes the traditional fixed-network system to another level, Fillinger says.
“When you put up a traditional fixed-network system that has gateways and data collectors, there are all sorts of hidden costs that the utilities aren’t aware of, such as the maintenance and who’s paying for the power,” he adds. “All of those things that go into a solution that a utility isn’t planning for can come back and bite them.”
Today’s fixed-network systems are becoming more complex, Fillinger says.
“Today, a utility that’s running mobile read systems is collecting a read once a month or once every three months depending on how often they get into the field. When you get into a fixed-network system, you’re getting hourly data,” he says. “What does it truly mean to the utility? The worst thing a utility could do is deploy a system, get hourly read data, and become paralyzed because it’s just data.”
The Beacon AMA system allows the utility to take the data and put it into information that’s going to be key to help drive business decisions for utilities, Fillinger says.
“In essence, the entire solution is using public infrastructure for your endpoints and then having the powerful analytics behind the software to be able to drive information into the utility to help them make informed decisions,” he adds.
Fillinger echoes an observation that has been articulated by others in the water industry: “If you look at utilities today, the electric industry seems to be a little bit more ahead on the technology side compared to water and gas. In the electric industry, you’re getting a monthly bill. You’re getting tools that allow the end consumer to see how much and when they’re using this commodity.”
With more sophisticated data management tools, “this gives water utilities the opportunity to function more like an electric utility,” he says. “A system like this drives in so many operational efficiencies and so many other benefits that can provide an increase of customer service.”
Fillinger says going forward, utilities can expect even more software enhancements and the continuation of educating the water consumer by constantly bringing them into the communication loop.