The Secret to Success

Sept. 13, 2013

AMI—that’s the acronym for Advanced Metering Infrastructure technology—was introduced to water departments just over a decade ago. Automatically and almost effortlessly, as it were, AMI scoops up data from thousands of scattered encoders, and then beams it to the business office. Instead of fleets of inspectors sent forth to read in person and, often, on foot, department staff—now blessed with AMI ease—sit back and absorb data in refined, accurate transmissions.

From meters sunken in pits or locked in basements, or wherever else, it comes streaming in. It flows not just quarterly or monthly, but daily, hourly, and, in some cases, even minute-by-minute.

Quite often, enhanced revenues gained from the new meters that are paired with the AMI installation easily pay back the whole investment. The benefits that are routinely derived from an AMI network include vastly expanded leak detection and pinpoint control over water resources.

Moreover, as the following case studies show, the latest AMI systems are beginning to deliver this data to water consumers as well. This is achieved primarily, of course, via the Internet. Sharing cumulative water consumption data over time with those who use it is now proving to be a superb educational tool for teaching and informing them about how to conserve it. For the water delivery agency and ratepayer alike, it’s a win-win. Here are four stories of water departments that have discovered how, with commissioning AMI’s capabilities, life at the office is never the same again.

City of Redmond, OR (10,000 connections)  
In late 2004, the Redmond Water District finally decided to bail out on the restrictions imposed by manual meter reading and switched to AMI. Operations manager Josh Wedding recounts that the goal was “to acquire daily accurate reads and track broken meters” or other equipment problems, “find leaks and non-communicating meters,” and, basically, “get an instant readout on whatever might be losing revenues for the city.” The new system has been evolving more-or-less continuously ever since, he adds.

Of equal importance, the agency wanted “an efficient way to supply customers with data to answer their billing inquiries proactively,” and to become well educated regarding their water use. Questions like. “Why was my bill so high last month?” are not uncommon, of course.

“And it’s kind of hard to answer that with just one read a month,” as was previously the case, he notes.

RWD’s search for the right AMI began with a request for proposals in 2005. This soon led the agency to Aclara as the bidder, who offered Redmond “the most solid foundation and operating platform for a fixed-base project,” says Wedding. In addition, Aclara was partnered at the time with Neptune as a manufacturer of fully compatible, highly regarded meters. “So, we got both a meter vendor and AMI vendor in one shot,” he recalls.

Contracts were signed, a system was designed, and ground breaking came in 2006. Within three years, the implementation had reached about 90% completion. It’s been extended continuously ever since, in this relatively high-growth area.

Change-outs or upgrades of aged meters with new smart Neptune encoders and a smattering of E-coders (high-resolution, solid-state absolute encoder registers) were ordered for every single meter in town, Wedding says.

Over the ensuing years, Redmond has steadily upgraded equipment to more advanced 3000-series MTUs and to DCUs with two-way capabilities. Meanwhile, billing system enhancements have also come, and “All of this was done hand-in-hand with Aclara,” he says, adding, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated their help on that end.”

As of the middle of 2013, Redmond was also upgrading IT servers and database management software (PostgreSQL version 7.3.2 to 7.4.1). “That’s a huge step for us, and kind of a new foundation”, which is multi-pronged, says Wedding. One server will house data for internal operations and management; with it, AMI data will enable the agency to track water by using zone scanning.

A second “intertwined Web server” will enable consumer engagement online. Individual customers will be able to log on and do historical comparisons on their water usage, to help them gain tighter control and understanding. Wedding sees this as “a tool to help them stay under their targets, conserve water, and save money, within budgets.”

Immediately over the horizon is a similar Aclara water management app for customers to download to their smartphones and tablets. Wedding himself is a test user. Essentially, it provides a basic, scaled-down “snapshot of current water usage,” he says; users can set thresholds on usage limits and receive alerts if these are too close to being exceeded.

In a sense, Wedding sums up, “everything that’s being done goes back to the challenge of how to answer customers’ inquires” about unexpectedly high usage spikes and billings. “The water department now has lots of data to answer that. So now, it’s a matter of how best to make it available to customers who routinely call in.”

It was a longing for this happy outcome that “kind of started us down this road,” he recalls. “We said, “˜Gosh, if they had access to this information here, that would really answer a lot of questions before they even make that call.”

Wedding finds a certain irony here though: as customers are getting a glimpse of all the data available to them, it turns out they’re even more apt to call in or visit the office in person—at least until they learn how to use the interface practically by themselves.

And another irony: when customers are informed of a leak these days (which happens all the time, thanks to the AMI’s early leak detection capabilities) they occasionally complain, as in, “Well if I had a leak back here three months ago, how come you didn’t let me know about it then?” At this point, says Wedding, you have to explain patiently to them, that “there are ten thousand accounts in the city, and at any given time, probably 10% have some type of leak going on . . . so you almost have to do triage.”

Moreover, he’s discovered that it is easy to become inundated by an AMI system flagging and alerting the office with far more suspected leaks than can be handled. “So,” he continues, “what we do for this is, we go through and first look for leaks we think might be causing damage to property. We’ll alert those customers” more promptly, he says. When making this phone call, a certain delicacy is needed to avoid incurring resentment that a contact didn’t come earlier, or implying that such water loss might be partly the agency’s responsibility, and therefore not subject to billing, he adds.

“We’ve got that detection tool now,” he concludes. “But you run into a lack of resource to let those customers know….” Thus, the Web-based consumer engagement portal becomes all the more critical as a tool for teaching users about leaks and loss control.

Again, there’s also a challenge in determining where to draw the line in setting leak alert thresholds. If too low, you’ll be inundated with hundreds of recurring alerts to follow up manually; if set too high, you will miss many marginal leaks that might continue a very long time without intervention.

He illustrates: “Let’s say you set the threshold at 1,000 gallons per day [GPD]. A lot of toilets leak more than that. So, you let these people know, ‘Hey, you’ve got a leak.’ Then, a customer comes in with, let’s say, a 900-GPD leak, and he says, ‘This is impacting me. How come you didn’t let me know?'”

Wedding further comments: “You don’t want to start down that road unless you’re prepared to deal with everything that’s going to come along. Ten dollars in extra charges for one person might not be much, but to another, it might be the world.”

Again, the consumer Web real-time portal is the logical place to solve these issues, as the consumer must learn to decide where to set the threshold.

Wedding wraps up by raving about the service Redmond has received from its AMI vendor. “Aclara has really stood behind us and gotten right on top of anything that might arise from any software,” he says, and has done an unusually good job of organizing support to make it’s staff quickly responsive.

Bethpage, NY, Water District (9,300 connections)
Another newly arriving customer-service portal highlighted an AMI project for the Bethpage, NY, Water District (BWD). BWD covers a 5 square-mile patch on Long Island, delivering well water via a half-dozen pumping stations and large storage tanks.

The project kicked off back in April 2012, notes BWD Superintendent Michael Boufis, and for the ensuing five years will be phasing-out 1980s vintage meters that were still being read manually. By the end of 2013, about one-quarter (2,500 meters) will be completed. Originally, BWD had thought to stretch the process over seven years, but great results came so quickly and were so valuable that the timetable is being accelerated,

Boufis says.

Supplying Bethpage with a complete change-out of meters, together with the integrated AMI, is Badger Meter. BWD opted for that product-line based on the company’s reputation, and Boufis says its “willingness to respond and assist us [during the selection stage] has been incredible. They were very proactive working with me, and willing to listen to our suggestions and changes.”

To complete the change-out, Bethpage is installing Badger Meter’s Recordall Disc Series meters and E-series Ultrasonic stainless steel meters for residential and small commercial accounts, along with compound, turbo, and fire service meters.

BWD will use the ORION SE system to send reading data via two-way radio communication from the endpoint to the gateways installed on the Bethpage water towers. The “two-way back and forth bridge” will enable BWD to capture timely reading data to help locate leaks within the system and increase the customer service provided to our end water users, says Boufis.

With a combination of old legacy and new meters, BWD “now has a hybrid situation,” with enhanced data benefits being realized on a limited number of accounts, as others await upgrading. On the new meter portion, at any time BWD can get near-real-time reads on a couple of thousand meters, as often as hourly instead of monthly, he notes.

The two-way functionality is extremely useful for doing final reads.

The two-way functionality is extremely useful for doing final reads on accounts that are closing, Boufis says. Everything can be done remotely from the office–a final bill quickly tallied and e-mailed. Under the old system, the office staff had to call the customer for an appointment, and then send a truck out for manual disconnection.

Bethpage pegs the total system cost at just under $3 million and projects a reasonable payback from increased revenues earned by the newer, more accurate meters. Already, several commercial accounts where new meters were installed have paid for themselves in just three billing cycles, says Boufis. New residential meters, due to their increased accuracy, will also pay off over a longer timeframe. Another big savings is anticipated from not having to replace thousands of check valves, as was mandated by the state. BWD’s new AMI eliminates the need for this work.

Boufis and the agency are especially delighted with Badger Meter’s ReadCenter AnalyticsPro software control, he says. The latest version was introduced in June 2013.

“It is really nice,” he says. “A brand new upgrade gives our customers a portal where they’re able to see their own data.”

Customers can get access via a username and password. Then, historical usage and billing records are viewable. “We will share a screen with them so that while we’re on the phone, we’ll be able to walk them through and show them what we’re seeing so we can go back into previous billing periods for comparative usage,” says Boufis.

Water consumption for any given summer period might fluctuate as much as 35% from year to year, he notes, depending on relatively drier or rainier conditions. This variability can spur many inquiries or complaints. Having a graphic summary of usage makes it easy to answer such queries.

Moreover, he continues, the interface “is a really good troubleshooting tool” for hunting down leaks or waste. ReadCenter helps identify potential water loss at homes, indicated, of course, by unusual flow volumes. Upon detection of this, utilities can e-mail or call customers, advising them to be on the lookout for the leaky faucet or flapper. The sensitivity level is also adjustable so that it won’t dispatch excessive alarms. For example, it can be set not to flag a problem until the suspected leak has continued for, say, three days in a row. With Bethpage’s former quarterly billing cycle, an unfortunate customer might incur months of loss and waste, and face a very high bill or two before the leak condition was noticed and fixed.

Boufis says the new system “seems to be very proactive and user-friendly system, and that’s why we decided to go with it.”

Interactive videos are in production to help customers understand and learn the new features via YouTube.

Boufis sums up by noting: “This is now my 25th year in the business, and this system has been by far my absolutely best experience I’ve had with any vendor. A lot of companies bend over backwards, but Badger treats me like I’m special. That’s really how they treat everybody–and I’ve talked to other Badger Meter customers all over country when I go to shows. I’ve been very impressed.”

Borough of Middletown, PA (2,700 connections)
In October 2004, Middletown, PA, a town of about 9,000, ditched their laborious walk-by reading method and switched to automation, consisting of Neptune R900 series E-Coder solid-state absolute encoders, RF MIUs, fixed-network gateway data collectors, and N_SIGHT R900 host software.

Why Neptune?

In 2004, as Superintendent of Public Works Kenneth Klinepeter remembers, the department first conducted its own comparative meter test. Neptune won, demonstrating the best accuracy down to eighths of a gallon per minute at low-flow. “We wanted to pick up as much water loss as we could, for more revenue,” he says.

And a second reason: Neptune’s encoder heads are capable, he notes, of 96 reads a day per meter. “When you have that much data that you can see, you can graph the usage monthly, daily, hourly, even quarter-hourly, and you can actually pull up these graphs for each customer’s account,” says Klinepeter. “You can see their pattern of usage–whenever they’re using water, or when they’re not. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for finding water leaks,” he says.

By June 2005, a complete fixed network was installed for both Middletown and another 1,700 adjacent connections.

The key storyline for this town’s AMI over the years is the way that upgrades have steadily reduced the number of gateway data collectors, from 10 initially, down to four in 2009, and again in 2012 down to just two (atop a water tank and low-rise building). Throughout, there’s been no loss of data volume or accuracy, Klinepeter reports. But maintenance has surely been simplified. Should a grid outage ever threaten the system, reliable UPS (uninterruptible power supply) batteries will preserve stored data and ensure continued acquisition.

Money-wise, Neptune’s demonstrably accurate meters indeed brought about a nice bump of $250,000 on billing revenues. This works out to a project payback in just four years. Non-revenue-producing water has been slashed by almost 10%, says Klinepeter.

All in all he’s thoroughly satisfied with the control software–called N_SIGHT R900–as well. With it, “the system status is shown in detail on a dashboard display,” he says. “You can view reads from each gateway. You can spot MIUs that might not be getting a read for any of a several reasons … and detect reverse flows or continuous leaks. You have the flexibility to break down water usage for a given time period.”

The system measures consumption down to as little as one-tenth of a gallon. Customer billing parameters can be adjusted and customized. Leak detection and customer notification are supported. And the latest software is fully compatible “with the same meters, encoders, and MIUs that were installed seven years ago,” he adds.

N_SIGHT also works as a teaching tool to help customers understand water loss and its expense. “People just don’t know most of time that they’re leaking water,” says Klinepeter. “They don’t realize the cumulative effect of a small water stream and how that adds up…. Before we had this Neptune system, for years we were always hearing customers tell us, “˜There’s something wrong with your meter, and we’re not paying this bill.’ And we really didn’t have a tool to show them and prove we were right. All we could do was say, “‘We’ll pull the meter and test if for accuracy.’ Now we don’t have to pull the meter anymore. We can give them the graphics and say, ‘Look at your usage.'”

In one recent case, Klinepeter showed a disgruntled customer a graph indicating that the household had been vacant for a weekend; meanwhile, a loose toilet flapper was allowing water to run the whole time. “Those are the kinds of things you can do with graphing,” he concludes. “It all adds up to better customer service.”

City of Houston, TX (455,000 metered endpoints)
Back in 1998, a staff of over 200 Houston, TX, meter readers went treading house-to-house each month, peering into murky pits to eyeball meter dials and dataloggers. At that time, the city became an early adopter of Itron’s mobile automated meter reading (AMR), by which readings were gathered from meter radio transmitters as fleets of readers rolled nearby.

Next, in 2007-08, Houston sought to ride the new wave of AMI technologies. The city’s huge water delivery system sprawls across 600 square miles, delivering more than 146 billion gallons annually to 3,000,000 city residents. That data infrastructure scale is enormous–beyond the typical turnkey capabilities of some AMI vendors.

Houston’s assistant director for public works Tommy McClung expected that his call for a local AMI implementation would be both challenging and expensive. But he was stunned with an estimate of more than $40 million, a bid which turned out to be prohibitively high.

Several more years passed until, finally, in 2010, the city opted to take the plunge and switch to a fixed-network AMI, costly though it might be.

AMI upgrades can enhance data collection.

McClung and his team faced the usual choices to make over which system and vendor to select. Here, though, what turned out to be McClung’s most decisive move was his plan to steer Houston away from any single supplier.

Assembling an assortment of component suppliers and independent consultants, McClung and Houston eventually wound up not only with equipment from Itron as the backbone, but with extensive participation from Aclara and Badger Meter and other vendors, as well.

By September of that year, the infrastructure deployment was well along. Itron’s Network Administration Application software was installed to manage it. Meter reads were gathered from access cell control units (CCUs) and hundreds of assorted repeaters and transmitters dispersed across the city.

Now, four years on, three-quarters, or about 310,000 of the city’s 440,000 accounts, are transmitting hourly meter reads. These total many millions of data pollings every day and pose enormous challenges for gathering, storing, and accessing it with consistent accuracy and steady frequency, McClung notes.

Data speeds along the huge radio network, delivering the usual set of benefits described earlier in other AMI towns: billing, system performance monitoring, reporting of exceptions and fault conditions, analytics, acoustic leak detection, water pressure monitoring, and remote connection and disconnection, which eliminates expensive truck rolls. (In a city this size, that’s effectively 1,000 work orders a day that don’t have to be fielded.)

Call center service reps (CSRs) at the water works now gain ready access to detailed consumption data for nearly all of the networked customer accounts; this proves extremely helpful in talking-through inbound caller inquiries, notes McClung. Out in the field, personnel can access the same data with their mobile smartphones and tablets, enabling them to operate more effectively and to share data with customers face-to-face, if need be.

For that matter, a new Web interface now lets CSRs share customer usage data with inbound callers in real time, either by phone or live chat. Commissioned in December 2012 as, the website also allows customers to log on and find their own usage data on an account page. By midsummer 2013, 70% of the city’s water consumers can theoretically obtain their data directly through it. The Web portal rollout was cautiously low-key during a shake-down phase; by mid-year only about 80,00 customers have actually signed on.

What users see is the familiar menu of benefits: under a “consumption awareness program” (CAP), for example, they can sign up for notifications on usage and projections of future consumption. McClung notes, “There’s a wealth of information to help folks understand their water bill, water consumption, and metering.”

Even on its initial small scale, the CAP is “a huge success,” he adds, in terms of customer satisfaction. System benefits and functions are constantly being improved upon.

McClung and his team, taking an unconventional approach, opted to follow a different path by deciding to do AMI extension and data warehousing on their own, aided by a few independent consultants. This approach has proven feasible, in part because Houston enjoys certain economies of scale, but also because it had the will and determination to try something different.

In McClung’s estimation, this move is now bringing about a vastly better and more versatile end result, at a tiny fraction of the original projected cost.

What may turn out to be far more significant for the AMI industry and water agencies alike, is the fact that Houston has put in play a larger paradigm shift in how future AMI systems will be designed and equipped. After the city made its decision to break free, McClung recruited a number of other agencies from across the country to participate in a movement to change how the AMI industry operates. Collaborating with AWWA, this movement has now culminated in the draft publication of AMI industry standards and protocols for making vendor equipment interoperable. The document is on course for being launched by AWWA later this year.

As the impact of all of this grows over time, in all likelihood it will dramatically change how the AMI market operates, how future networks will be built, and by whom.

More about that story will be told in a forthcoming sequel to this, on how agencies are handling the torrent of hourly data to transform operational management; that story complements the customer service revolution just reported here. So please, stay tuned. 
About the Author

David Engle

David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.

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Photos courtesy Chino Basin Water Reclamation District.
From left: Matt Hacker, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Marco Tule, Inland Empire Utilities Agency Board President; Gil Aldaco, Chino Basin Water Conservation District Board Treasurer; Curt Hagman, San Bernardino County Supervisor; Elizabeth Skrzat, CBWCD General Manager; Mark Ligtenberg, CBWCD Board President; Kati Parker, CBWCD Board Vice President; Teri Layton, CBWCD Board member; Amanda Coker, CBWCD Board member.