AMI Integration: Pro and Con

Feb. 12, 2014

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) includes systems to measure, collect, and analyze energy usage by communicating with metering devices on demand or on a regular schedule. Many municipalities and utility companies have begun incorporating AMI as part of their “Smart Grid” initiatives. It’s two-way meter communication via a mesh configuration. Linking meters with the utility allows commands to be sent to the meter, enabling remote disconnects and demand-response action in response to pricing during times of peak consumption.

“The concept of AMI evolved from meter reading; it’s just gone one step further,” states Larsh Johnson, chief technology officer of eMeter Inc., a Siemens Smart Grid Division. Johnson has been at the forefront of the Smart Grid movement since its inception, focusing on smart metering business processes, IT data management, and integration.

He explains the seriousness of water issues. “Fifteen percent of water is lost in most cities. If the water is running at night or while you’re at work, it’s a problem. Water loss and leakage raise rates.”

Although he considers the value of water “inappropriately low,” he notes that 30% of the cost of water is for electricity to pump and treat it.

Therefore, efficiency is important. “It’s a policy driver,” says Johnson.

AMI facilitates the flow of detailed information, alerting consumers to when and how much water and energy they’re using by providing a complete profile through samples of consumption in hourly or 15-minute chunks, collected daily.

Johnson considers consumer access to information extremely beneficial. “Metering is the basis for use; it creates value in the consumer’s mind. The point of delivery is a cash register.” He paraphrases an old adage, “If you don’t measure, how can you improve? Monitoring is essential.”

Owning Up
Having built a managed services business to remotely collect and process meter reads through one of the first advanced metering networks nearly three decades ago, Johnson has seen the evolution of AMI with the product, technology, and capability. “Integration is challenging,” he says, as he considers all aspects of the task. First, separate organizations for gas, electric, and water are involved–some of which are private companies, while others are municipal entities.

“Electric and water AMI systems are often separate, except for combined municipal systems like Burbank has,” he explains. “When they don’t share services, AMI decisions are made separately, because they use different components and systems. You don’t just put in a water system; the electric system uses it, too.”

In fact, points out Morrice Blackwell, marketing manager for Badger Meter, privately owned electric utilities have no access to the infrastructure, no right-of-way. If they merge, he believes the water company will be at the mercy of the electric company, because it must use their communication system.

Where there is data and pipe sharing, there will be overlap—leading to the question of who owns the communications conduit, ponders Bob Slevin, product manager for energy and utility with Verizon Enterprise Solutions. “It’s a service level agreement: who owns it?” he asks.

With a shared system, one vendor must buy and own the platform. “These are proprietary platforms, so one company wants to control the device,” says Scott Williamson, CEO Capstone Metering LLC, Texas. “The problem is that the other operator doesn’t want to be controlled.”

No one wants to be the customer service provider for another utility, Blackwell contends.

Slevin concurs that the issue is one of control. “Public and private won’t share, because if there’s a breakdown, who gets it fixed? If a tornado wipes out the mesh, whose responsibility is it to rebuild? Who pays? Who rebuilds? Who is served first? The theory is if all three are together, no one is responsible.

“I would love to see one unified model, but I don’t see it happening,” concludes Slevin. “The bottom line is: who pays?”

Under Control
Not only do both sides want to maintain control, Johnson says, but also organizations don’t make decisions at the same time.

For example, the changeout frequency of these technologies may not coincide, says Blackwell, who believes that the electric side drives and dictates technology decisions. “If the water meter is changed every 15 years, but the government mandates an electric change in 7 years, do you want to change the water?”

Utilities still talk about 20-year life, he continues. “It sets a bad precedent. It’s a fallacy that the system will stay in place for 20 years; technology changes too quickly. If the communication platform changes, you have an issue.”

If the communication platform is cellular, you can be sure it won’t stay around that long. Blackwell points to five- to seven-year cycles for the 2G, 3G, and 4G networks. “Significant improvements in technology are coming rapidly.”

Technology changes are paramount, Slevin agrees. “Some municipalities can’t add new customers with the old system; they have to start over.”

Sadly, he notes, many cities are unhappy with the technology they bought. “There’s pushback from the customer if they’re replacing a system.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that most manufacturers build each device with a specific communication device married to them. Verizon’s modular system is agnostic–it works with all systems and accommodates changes.

“No city should ever be stagnant,” says Slevin. “We offer a solid product that is modular (for growth) and works on whatever platform; it’s not locked into a brand.”

Today’s technology should last, he believes. That’s why Verizon made its meter separate.

“You can now change communication devices without changing the meter,” explains Slevin. “If technology changes in five years, you don’t have to replace the meter and network. That’s a huge savings.”

However, as Blackwell points out, the key drivers to adding more technology in electric are very different than in water. “Electric is private, investor-owned, run like a business, and aiming for a Return on Investment and optimized efficiency. Water is municipal and government-run, with no P&L statement.”

Integrating multiple utilities is not the “norm,” claims Blackwell. “There is no seamless foolproof solution. For multi-utility AMI to work, you need a common communication platform. If we had a common communication platform, it could work.”

Wi-Fi was the dream, he says. “It made sense for the product to talk to Wi-Fi, but universal Wi-Fi never came to fruition. It took too many nodes to happen: one per square mile was not enough.” Despite duplicating the network, additional infrastructure in homes and more troubleshooting would be necessary.

The most common communication platform is cellular. “Cellular networks are everywhere,” says Blackwell. “It could be the universal communication platform we need. But the business model is set around selling handsets to teens, not industry-grade bandwidth to companies. Cell companies are focused on the individual; they do have a utility division, but aren’t serious about it.”

Williamson agrees, but thinks that if cell carriers realize that they can get profits from “little pieces of lots of pies,” and if the utilities figure out they can pay an incremental amount to upgrade without having to pay to maintain the infrastructure, there might be more interest in integrating.

There are still some sticking points, however. For example, when it comes to data pooling, a town of 10,000 needs 10 data collectors, Williamson estimates. The problem is that each would have a different plan, but the bulk discounts come with billing as one big plan, not at a per-home level.

“The cell companies can’t divvy plans small enough to make it work,” says Williamson. Therefore, although he calculates pricing at 25% of what it was five years ago, he says it could still be significantly cheaper.

Blackwell thinks a separate pricing structure is needed, agreeing that current prices are too high. “Cell pricing is out of line,” he says.

It may be expensive, but cellular is adaptable and could be modified to better suit integrated AMI. Data centers on water towers use cellular to send data to the utility, but if every home had a cellular endpoint, direct reporting is possible–“not just reporting,” interjects Blackwell. “With two-way technology, you get demand-response capabilities.”

Mission-critical operations would require “top-level bandwidth,” but, because cell companies are putting money into maintaining infrastructure, it’s an attainable goal. Until recently, it was a goal that has been out of reach. “Three years ago, we couldn’t use cellular because it took too much power,” notes Slevin.

Another former hindrance to use of a cellular platform was battery life, Blackwell indicates. “Gas and water run off batteries. Water sends a signal once an hour, so a battery lasts 20 years. But it can’t support the additional communication of a cellular protocol; it drains the battery.” He adds that there is interest in using cellular technology in water and gas for the most important meters, but customers must realize they’ll get only 10 years (not 20) of battery life if they want to get additional data.

Non-rechargeable batteries are one of the “systemic issues for utilities,” says Williamson. But a cellular platform, while attractive in many ways, has other downsides.

“It’s a common platform everyone uses, but the platform was written 15 years ago to read consumption only,” he says. “It needs an overhaul; the system can’t support new technology on electric meters.”

Battery life impacts other potential platforms as well. “Mesh technology doesn’t work well for water, because it’s power-hungry,” says Blackwell. Mesh signal is bounced from unit to unit along multiple paths and then to the base station. But due to the challenge to transfer signals from inside homes, and the rapid depletion of battery power, he says mesh technology products for water have gone by the wayside. “Point-to-point is the technology of choice for water; it’s the most viable.”

Unfortunately, point-to-point also has drawbacks. “There’s not enough access to infrastructure to make point-to-point work,” continues Blackwell. “You need tall structures.”

One challenge is that municipal utilities don’t have access to public-owned structures. “Electric utilities are privately owned,” explains Williamson. “They have no access to infrastructure.”

Another challenge is location. “If you’re in an area with dense population, use mesh,” he says. “If it’s a rural area, use point-to-point. If there’s no infrastructure, use cellular.”

Cloud technology doesn’t need infrastructure and is an option where infrastructure costs are too high. Verizon offers AMI meter data management in their cloud. “Our goals are to connect fleets with a horizontal solution and allow our customers to upgrade their AMI securely,” explains Slevin.

Another hindrance to integrating AMI across multiple utilities stems from the fact that installation is different. The main thing is to recognize that water, gas, and electric meters are different in location and configuration, Johnson advises.

“Location of the water meter is a challenge,” he says. “They can fill with water during a storm, making operation more difficult.”

Because water pipes are underground, the cost of installing devices can be high. On the other hand, Johnson says, sharing the same installers and radio-based network could result in low equipment and installation costs.

Water and gas infrastructure is usually buried; electricity is not, which has some advantages, Blackwell notes. Electricity is a continuous power source with infrastructure 4–5 feet off the ground, but it also has the highest bill. Nevertheless, putting sensors on power lines is easier than putting them below ground–although lines can be taken down by tornados, so each application has its drawbacks. Finding a common solution is virtually impossible. “Multi-utility has challenges with how the product is installed,” says Blackwell.

That’s why there is no universal AMI, Slevin says. “Some work with water, some with other utilities.” He believes oil and gas have a platform better suited for water than electric.

Answering the Critics
In 2011, the Consumers Digest article “Why Smart Meters Might Be a Dumb Idea” documented concerns about integrated AMI, ranging from cost to health and fire risks, to security issues due to remote-control kill switches.

Credit: Badger Meter
Badger Meter AMR/AMI hardware solutions for water and gas utilities as part of the ORION product family

Johnson says the health concerns about pulsed radiofrequency radiation emitted by wireless smart meters is “blown out of proportion.” A 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology would seem to support his stance: it found no health impact, based both on lack of scientific evidence of harmful effects from radio frequency (RF) waves, and on the observation that the RF exposure of people in their homes to smart meters is likely to be minuscule compared with RF exposure to cell phones and microwave ovens.

“Emissions are in the line with cell phones. Besides, we’re already using radiofrequency to communicate with basestations,” adds Johnson, noting that AMI communicates only a few times a day, thus posing little threat.

In response to the challenges of cyber security inherent in wireless technology, Johnson indicates that the industry is very focused on security. “Individual links are protected with encrypted radio signals and password protection. If one link gets broken, you can’t get into another. The smart meter is no different than any other; it doesn’t add to the risk.”

Because they get “optimal efficiency through shared technology—more data and one-stop shopping”—Blackwell believes there is no downfall for the consumer.

However, many consumers are uneasy about proposed mergers between utilities, Williamson says. It may seem intuitive that sharing a communication platform would lead to efficiency, which would, in turn, lower costs. But too often, customers see the opposite.

“They don’t want the costs to go up,” he says. “One supplier and one network mean no competition. When you’re talking about private companies, there are no rules on costs.”

Feedback from utilities is very positive, Williamson continues, and many customers do appreciate the additional data. “Granularity is a huge advantage.” Nevertheless, he says that the only “real” integration currently taking place is on the bill.

Some single utilities are successfully integrating AMI, Blackwell says, although he could only think of examples with gas and electric–none that included water. Johnson counted six customers for whom Siemens has deployed AMI for both water and electric.

Capstone, which designs and manufactures hardware and software technology for automatic meter reading (AMR)/AMI, launched pilot programs in several cities in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as the Cayman Islands. “Consumers want integration into their SCADA systems so they can turn pumps off to reduce costs,” says Williamson. “That helps the municipality and saves money.”

He offers suggestions for another way to save money: pressure readings. It’s not an option, he says. Reading pressure allows them to monitor leaks. “The average consumer has no idea of pressure. You use less water at 40 psi than at 80 psi, so you need to balance the system to not waste water—reduce pressure for savings.”

The savings comes primarily from using less electricity to pump the water, but also from less processing and transportation. It’s the difference between a smart meter and an intelligent meter, Williamson says.

“Smart meters just measure water and send that data via wireless transmission,” he says. “Intelligent meters provide more data and detail, such as temperature, pressure, and backflow.” They turn on/off remotely, integrate into the billing system, providing customers with a unified dashboard, and even generate power, using water flow as a power source to charge the battery.

Every district has a master meter, but Williamson says it can take two to three days to read all the meters. “There’s no way to know if water is lost, because the data isn’t taken at the same time. You can’t read just volume, because then you’re not sure if you are metering or billing correctly.”

Adding more technology natively is a new horizon for the water industry. It’s what Johnson calls “smart metering 2.0.”

So what’s next? “Optimize power,” he says. “It’s the same progression in water that we’ve seen in other areas.”

Johnson believes most issues are largely resolved on the product end, and that it’s now up to the organization/business/municipality to sort out. “AMI is advancing rapidly, but too many haven’t seen a way to take advantage of water, so deployment is low.”

Because processing, which requires a lot of energy, is done in conjunction with storage, he suggests controlling the amount of energy used by replenishing water supplies when energy is less expensive. “Run the system when power prices are most efficient. Use power when it’s easier to deliver and take advantage of the ability to store.”

That kind of management of energy is obviously easier if utilities are combined. There is growing awareness of a water-energy nexus—the symbiotic nature of the amount of energy required to process water. However, infrastructure is old and in disrepair, Williamson says, and efficiencies remain poor.

“I love the idea of sharing a network,” he says. “The time to do it is now, but funding is difficult with the economy.”

Williamson adds that, also, costs aren’t going to go down. “The cost of water is the cost of infrastructure. We have to modernize in the next 10 years—we’re already behind.”

“The next seven to eight years will be exciting,” believes Blackwell.

You Get What You Ask For
The big challenges are power and billing, Slevin says. “Some of the new technologies are working through that, but there is no standard AMI for disparate utilities. I would love to share, but I don’t see it.”

He does see benefits for the environmentally conscious consumer, but repeats that most utilities have different priorities. “It could work for counties or consortiums in rural areas. It would increase their purchasing power and give them a quicker path to upgrade, saving money and personnel.”

In the future, Slevin envisions AMI being adopted for safety reasons in areas of drought. The best practices from electricity could work with water time-of-use billing or policing if there are water restrictions.

“Maybe it will start with conservation, energy curtailment,” he notes.

While AMI has the ability to improve communication, infrastructure, and operational efficiency, ultimately Slevin thinks it comes down to customer demand. And, at this time, he says, “We’re not getting asked for it.”
About the Author

Lori Lovely

Winner of several Society of Professional Journalists awards, Lori Lovely writes about topics related to waste management and technology.

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