AMI Fast Track to Meter Data Management…and More

Dec. 22, 2014

The benefits start with automated meter readings (AMR), but with the wealth of data that’s collected from Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), there’s so much more to be gained. Here’s just a partial list of the benefits: real-time organization improvement, streamlined field maintenance, and leak detection. For managers, benefits include tools for assessing and prioritizing capital infrastructure planning, plus water and energy conservation. For customers, there are user-friendly consumer engagement Web portals and water loss notifications via e-mail, text, and phone. Finally, for the onerous tasks of satisfying city, state, and federal regulations, you have accurate data for government compliance reporting.

Any of the benefits above could save enough time and labor to provide a very fast return on an AMI investment. Yet, many utilities that have AMI aren’t capturing the savings and efficiencies available from their data. It’s an irony that’s not lost upon the industry, and AMI manufacturers are responding. Let’s take a look at some of their solutions.

To start, we should address those utilities that want AMI benefits but are waiting for a low-risk program to see if AMI is right for their situation. Badger Meter Inc.’s BEACON AMA Starter Kit, introduced in January 2014, allows utilities to test this managed solution with 10 ORION Cellular endpoints, along with use of the complete BEACON AMA system, including its hosted software suite. There’s no need for the utility to install servers or gateways, because the software is cloud-based, and the meters communicate data through ORION Cellular endpoints.

According to Rich Meeusen, CEO at Badger, the starter kits offer a high level of flexibility in structuring a pilot program and eliminate a roadblock in testing a system: “If your entire city is using a drive-by legacy system and you try out another system, you don’t really want to drive to four different corners of town to read a meter,” says Meeusen. “So typically, you find a block of houses that you can change out to this other system, and read them all at once. The same thing with a fixed network, because you don’t want to put towers up all over town.”

The scenario is different with Badger’s cellular-based system. It gives managers the freedom to choose their test locations based upon the needs of the utility. For example, a city manager might want to test a unit on a large commercial water user, and another at a location where there has been difficulty in getting readings. Also, the trial would likely benefit from some units on both heavy and light residential customers.

Utility managers can customize information dashboards

“Now the utility can get a true sampling of the population,” says Meeusen. “They’ve never been able to do that before because of the cost of implementing a tower in each of those areas with a collector. There’s no longer a need to implement the system on a geographic wide basis. You can install them throughout the city on a scattered basis, very economically.”

The hosted software suite, BEACON AMA, is accessed through the Internet and provides increased visibility through analytics. Benefits include fast leak detection, revenue management, water conservation clarity, and easy data collection for compliance reporting. Utility managers can customize information dashboards to set unique alert conditions, consumer engagement tools (with website and smartphone/tablet apps), automatic software upgrades, and integration with utility systems.

“Analytics provides data that can be overlaid with temperature and precipitation,” says Meeusen. “The system can access weather forecasts and tell the utility that it may have a pressure problem, given the historical use of water, when hot temperatures are coming up on a long weekend, and customers will be watering lawns heavily. Another feature can analyze whether or not they have the right type of meter. We find that often the meter is oversized because it’s assumed that a building will use a lot of water. But when you have some history, you find that they’re really not using as much as anticipated, and the low flow represents more use than the high flow. So, the large meter doesn’t have the capability to measure that low flow properly, and the utility loses a lot of revenue. A car wash is a good example. You want to measure the use of water when the staff washes their hands or turns on a faucet, but then when the car wash starts, there’s a huge demand. You have to have the proper meter to capture both the high usage and the low volume.”

Badger’s use of a hosted suite, accessible through the Internet, is also known by the term “software as a service,” and other AMI providers are offering similar packages. In fact, there’s a strong push in the industry to offer user-friendly data analytics that simplify the transition to harnessing the data from AMI systems. According to Navigant Research, this approach is a significant factor in the overall growth of the global smart water networks market. Navigant predicts that the market will expand from the $1.1 billion in annual revenue it created in 2013, to more than $3.3 billion in 2022. Eric Woods, research director with Navigant Research, cites the transition of the industry to a data-centric business as an inevitable outcome of the technology. Then, too, he notes that water is becoming a focal point of many cities’ sustainability agendas, and smart water networks can play a role in conserving water and expanding services. Such efforts could prolong the life of existing assets, and allow utilities to prioritize repair programs for aging water infrastructure.

Credit: ITRON
Actionable intelligence

Smart Cities Approach
In many ways, smart water is following in the footsteps of the smart grid. Electric utilities have an impressive track record for embracing AMI technologies, and the networks that they’ve developed can often help water utilities because the complications of acquiring and constructing communication towers can be a daunting prospect. But what if a city’s electric utility already had a network system? Overall, owning and maintaining towers is nothing new to the industry. We have two examples that show how smart grids are allowing water utilities to dive into AMI, without the construction and management worries, and capital investments, of developing a network.

First, let’s travel to the city of Bismarck, ND, where the water department has selected Itron to modernize its water distribution system. Bismarck manages their new system by using an existing Itron network deployed by Montana-Dakota Utilities Company (MDU), provider of electric and natural gas service to parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Bismarck will use Itron’s AMI solution along with Itron Analytics as a service to improve operational efficiencies and streamline meter reading.

The ability to modernize with an AMI system that could be updated was a key factor in the city’s decision, according to Keith Demke, P.E., director of utility operations, city of Bismarck. “We started with a phone-based automatic read system back in the nineties, and it has deteriorated to the point where about a quarter of our meters are being read by the automatic system,” he says. “The department didn’t want to go with another drive-by system because it wanted technology that’s going to be around for a while. We saw the demonstration of Itron’s analytics, and the ability for our customer service reps and our customers to drill down into their water use data. It allows us to get information as to how they’re using water, and we can do a better job of answering questions for people when they call.”

“Partnering with MDU is a great way to share infrastructure and reduce costs,” says Joe Ball, Director of Marketing for water at Itron. “When you have progressive cities that have partnerships between the local utilities, you’re going to see a lot of movement in this area. It’s part of the smart city focus we’re seeing in the industry, which is broader than just electricity, water, and gas.”

In such cases, a smart city focus also benefits from a network propagation study, to determine the existing network assets. For example, MDU could find an advantage in utilizing a high water tower from Bismarck Water, if there was a need to boost or expand the network.

“The City of Bismarck is putting in Itron’s analytic applications to leverage all that interval data that they’ll be collecting on a daily basis, via the fixed network,” adds Ball. “So this is a system where they import all the data and combine it, slice and dice it, and show different dashboard views that can be used across the utility, and give them actionable intelligence.”

The Itron solution includes 21,000 water communication modules and associated collection technologies. In addition, Bismarck entered into an agreement with MDU, in which MDU will provide water meter readings to Bismarck using its existing Itron fixed network.

For our next example, let’s head South, to Texas, where the city of Georgetown is deploying EnergyAxis, from Elster. It’s a systemwide, multi-utility meter replacement project that includes 21,000 Elster water meters and 21,000 Elster electricity meters. Communication between the meters and the system software enables the city to reduce operational costs and minimize outage management response time.

Another benefit will come from helping the city’s focus on water conservation, according to Glenn Dishong, utility director for Georgetown. “Our conservation push is important because in Central Texas we’re living on the edge of a desert, and conditions are generally dry,” says Dishong. “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Water Development Board announced a target number that they wanted to see utilities at per capita, and we were substantially higher. If we continued at that current per capita rate, we couldn’t build out the city without requiring more water. So that next drop of water would’ve cost a lot more, because is not readily available in our lakes or aquifer. We draw from the Edwards aquifer and get about 30% from the aquifer, and 70% from area lakes. We are at the point of maximum draw from the aquifer, and we aren’t creating any new wells for public use because we would be overdrafting the aquifer.”

Georgetown will be using the latest upgrade (version 9.1) of Elster’s EnergyAxis AMI solution. It includes Elster’s portfolio of software, hardware and firmware components, and encompasses major enhancements, including features that enable utilities with electricity and water or gas meters to more effectively manage two or three utility services through the same system.

It’s worth noting that Elster Solutions has released a new version of its REXUniversal electric meter, which incorporates point-to-point cellular communications technology. With the addition of cellular support, the Elster REXUniversal meter now operates on cellular as well as mesh AMI networks. Can a cellular-based water meter be far behind?

As utilities focus on conservation, the fact that they’re selling less water puts more importance on revenue protection, according to Brian Crow, CEO at Verdeeco, a smart grid analytics company, recently acquired by Sensus In April 2014, Sensus announced that it had “enhanced its data analytics portfolio by acquiring Atlanta-based Verdeeco, a smart grid analytics company offering big data solutions for electric, water, and gas utilities.” All the applications are hosted in a secure cloud by Verdeeco’s Grid as a Service platform.

The Verdeeco suite of products, services, and applications enables utilities to aggregate data from smart meters, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, customer billing software, news services, and a myriad of other sources. Cloud-based management requires a lower upfront capital investment, offers a reduced cost of ownership, and enables the utility to take advantage of new software functionality. Moreover, it’s possible to see results quickly.

“Customer service and revenue protection are two areas that are easy to go after inside of the utility,” says Crow. “Revenue protection is something that utilities struggle with. And those are bags of cash that are sitting around the utility just waiting to be uncovered. And uncover is the appropriate word. The simplest thing is just being able to quantify overall system losses. At a system level it’s very easy to know the losses, but it’s very difficult to take the next step and identify the exact area where they should be focusing on the losses, and where to budget for capital improvements to curtail the losses. It should be a matter of getting into smaller areas and breaking the system open into manageable chunks, to understand the inflows and outflows, and what the trends are over time. If there’s a recognition of an older part of the system where the losses are increasing per month, that’s an area that should be on the map for repairs. So that allows the management to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Verdeeco’s data analysis tools also allow managers to combine data from multiple enterprise systems. For utilities that have added and changed their operations and methods over years (often decades), viewing the data can be a surprising revelation. “When you do that, the data anomalies surface quickly and you realize that you have inconsistencies,” says Crow. “You see that it’s not something that’s operationally wrong in the utility network, it’s just that when data from other systems have converged you see that it’s not what you thought it was. So the value in these other operational systems and the decision making might not be correct. Now managers can step back and do some data cleansing and make sure everything is correct.”

Rather than acquire a company, as Sensus did, Neptune Technology Group, a provider of meter reading and metering technologies, created its Connected Utility Partnership Program, a project intended to meet the growing needs of water utilities by extending Neptune’s capabilities beyond meter reading.

The partnership program, creates value for water utilities by leveraging Neptune’s Advanced Sensor Infrastructure (ASI) to enable shared, analyzed data across an array of utility applications. All members of the Neptune Connected Utility Partnership Program share a common commitment to ensuring simple, out-of-the-box connectivity to Neptune AMR and AMI solutions.

“The foundation of the program is to solve technical challenges that are impeding the ability of the utilities to get the job done,” says John Sala, marketing director, Systems & Software, Neptune. “If you look at what typically happens, water utilities often start projects but fail to get them completed. It’s because in the past, there weren’t agreements and standards for communications, and the onus fell on the utility to solve the problem. They’d see that they needed to get consumption data or alerts into the Work Management System [WMS], for example, so they would have details for analysis from the field to conduct investigations. But if they didn’t have someone hand keying this data from one system to another, they would have to reach out to the specific vendors to have them develop a custom port of the data between departments. Then the vendors would come up with independent, and often quite expensive, projects.”

Sala notes that IDModeling provides a good example of the benefits from the Connected Utility Partnership. IDModeling’s software solution, SedarÅ«, works in tandem with Neptune’s N_SIGHT software suite, to integrate data across systems. For example, meter readings, consumption trending; and leak, tamper, and reverse flow data from Neptune’s AMR/AMI systems can be integrated with data from other utility systems, such as information on pressure monitoring, water-quality monitoring, sanitary sewer overflow, field work productivity, and operational alerts from SCADA. To accommodate the growing role of GIS technology, SedarÅ« provides a GIS-based environment where data can be compared on layered maps.

The City of La Palma, CA, chose SedarÅ« to provide hydraulic asset and operational management analytics and to support water operations, plus energy, quality, water resource, and asset management initiatives. According to James Tsumura, La Palma’s Water Supervisor,

the city needs to move beyond a paper-based system, and take advantage of automation and analytics. SedarÅ« will connect La Palma’s staff to a broad range of systems, including Esri-based geographic information systems (GIS), asset management, hydraulic modeling, and Neptune Technology Group’s AMI. The benefit of real time water data communication from AMI will help the city manage its meter usage, and error codes. Also, backflow and leak events will be delivered to Water Division staff for immediate detection and resolution. Long-term goals for the city include using SedarÅ« to access and run hydraulic modeling tasks.

From meter reading, to asset management, to hydraulic modeling, the city of Palma offers an good example of the savings and efficiency gains that are available from AMI systems. And with low cost pilot programs, such as Badger’s BEACON AMA Starter Kit, it’s easier than ever to start your transition to a data-centric business. Whether it’s capital infrastructure planning, water and energy conservation, consumer engagement, leak detection, or government compliance reporting, you’ll find it, and more, within AMI technology.

About the Author

Ed Ritchie

Ed Ritchie specializes in energy, transportation, and communication technologies.

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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.