Absolute AMI: Columbia, S.C., Meter Project Highlights Wide-Ranging System Improvements

A meter upgrade can represent a significant advancement for a water utility, affecting everything from operations to customer service to financial planning – that is, better use of resources and saving money. When the South Carolina capital city of Columbia was struggling with meter reads and inaccurate billing it turned to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

The past decade has seen many improvements to meters and related technologies, and has given way to new approaches in water distribution management. AMI systems have largely been at the forefront of this development, supporting both the utility and end user, and ensuring water is properly delivered and each account is billed accurately. The installation of an AMI system can take many shapes depending on the size and scale of the project.

But for AMI projects, there’s much more to it than going out in the field and installing some new meters. And the results of these projects have benefits beyond just improved meter reading.

Columbia Water

Columbia Water provides drinking water, wastewater and stormwater utility services for the City of Columbia. The utility operates and maintains about 2,400 miles of water lines, distributing 150 million gallons of water per day and serving more than 425,000 customers in Richland and Lexington Counties.

The origins of the city’s ongoing AMI project date to the late 1990s when the city first started to experience minimal issues with meter reads. But in the past 20 years, the city has invested in modernizing aging infrastructure and treatment facilities in order to meet demands and regulatory compliance. During this time, it became apparent that a modern solution was also needed to enhance the monitoring of its distribution system.

In 2012, the city launched a pilot program that involved the installation of a limited number of drive-by AMR meters and a partial AMI system. Although that led to some improvement in certain parts of the system, the city couldn’t afford to implement a full-scale system that would cover the majority of its connections, explains Jason Shaw, water engineer with Columbia Water.

By 2016, the city was having more regular issues, with estimated bills going out and problems keeping up with meter reads in the system.

“We have 150,000 metered accounts that we read manually with 27 meter readers and we bill monthly,” says Shaw. “So, every 28-32 days we have to read that meter, and the system is growing at 2,000 to 3,000 metered accounts a year. We were just having a hard time keeping up with that and keeping meter readers staffed.”

Shaw also explains that one of the local television news networks in Columbia ran a series of stories on billing inaccuracies for water. This contributed to the headache for the utility, which decided it was time to look into implementing an AMI system.

Columbia Water hired Jacobs Engineering as a consultant and to work up a business case analysis, which revealed that it was cost-beneficial for the city to move forward with AMI. The business case revealed the average meter age in the meter population was 14 years old as of 2017, which equated to a 4 percent under-registration.

In early 2018 the project went out to bid to meter vendors. Columbia employed a careful approach in its search for a vendor who would provide the right meters, communications system and customer service capabilities. The city, along with Jacobs, also wanted a turnkey operation in which one team would coordinate the project, with meter vendor and installer under a single contract.

Badger Meter was selected to deploy its suite of smart water offerings including its BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) cloud-based software suite, ORION Cellular LTE-M endpoints, Recordall Disc Series meters and E-Series Ultrasonic meters. Customers would also have access to Badger’s EyeOnWater consumer engagement portal, in which end-users can view water use and set controls and early leak detection alerts to catch issues before they result in high bills.

The project team was rounded out with Hammond, Louisiana-headquartered Utility Metering Solutions (UMS) handling the installations.

The project kicked off in mid-March of 2019, but prior to being in full swing, the utility, Badger Meter and UMS first took an Initial Deployment Area (IDA) approach. This period identified a small number of residential and commercial accounts – in this case about 500 – to be deployed first and help the project team understand how the new metering system would function when operational. Basically, making sure all systems are go.

“It’s an important part of any project because what we’re talking about here is change management,” says Morrice Blackwell, senior solution architect at Badger Meter, who was involved in the project. “We don’t want any of our customers to install our system and use it simply as a billing tool. We want them to get all the benefits from it – how it affects customer service, leak detection and all these different facets of the utility. The IDA period is a great way for each department to see how this deployment will affect them.”

The AMI deployment was fully up and running in July 2019. Currently, the program is approaching 50 percent completion on the meter installations.

The Right Solution

From the beginning, Columbia Water recognized the importance of assembling a team that would collaborate on important decisions throughout the process of selecting the meter vendor, the installer and getting the full solution operational.

The city assembled a five-member selection committee that included Shaw, the utility’s meter reading supervisor, a representative from the utility’s IT department, a representative from its Budget and Program Management department and the head of the utility’s customer care group.

Even with his extensive experience with Badger Meter, a major U.S. meter manufacturer, Blackwell adds that he was impressed with the comprehensive participation from utility personnel in meetings, beginning with the RFP presentation.

“Every department was there,” Blackwell says. “When they looked at a particular solution, they wanted to make sure it met the needs of those departments. The same thing is true today [on the project]. They’ve really gotten great buy-in across the board.”

As the project got under way, the collaboration continued. “I’m not an IT person,” Shaw recalls jokingly, noting that Columbia Water is good at working on water lines and treatment plants, but needed some help when it came to the software and data management aspects that come with implementing AMI.

“We’re in the business of treating water and wastewater and doing water and sewer utility work, we’re not in the telecommunications business,” he says. It’s one of the reasons the city was attracted to Badger’s ORION cellular network solution. The network infrastructure is fully maintained by Badger Meter and its telecommunications partner, AT&T. The ORION cellular endpoint technology eliminates the need for standard utility-owned fixed network infrastructure and allows for quick deployment and requires less maintenance, according to Badger Meter.

“There haven’t been many accounts this size to adopt cellular,” says Joey Mitchell, vice president at UMS, which has done work with the Columbia Water in the past. “We knew this was a good opportunity where cellular would work very well, and would also streamline the installation and implementation process.”

Shaw adds that another factor that drove the technology decisions was customer service.

“Badger’s EyeOnWater system was very user-friendly and straightforward and we really liked how the customer side of the portal sees the same data [as the utility] and is largely the same as the utility portal,” he says. “We wanted our customer care representatives to have access to this data and also provide it to our customers while having it be very easy to understand. That was a real driver for us.”

Installation and Results to Date

With the installation by UMS beginning in spring 2019, the AMI deployment was fully up and running by July. Currently, the program is approaching 50 percent completion on the meter installations.

Shaw notes that since the utility had not implemented a wholesale meter program for 20 years, it expected challenges. One of those challenges turned out to be with infrastructure in and around the meters, such as the meter boxes. It was a goal of the utility to bring such infrastructure up to new standards. Initially, the utility estimated it would have to change out 25 percent of small meter boxes – a number that’s turned out to be closer to 40 percent.

The utility had also planned to install roughly 8,000 backflow preventers at older meters, which has increased to 40,000 to 50,000 meters that need new backflow preventers.

Mitchell explains how UMS has had teams surveying connections about two months ahead of the installation team, checking for any unforeseen circumstances such as tree roots growing around meter boxes, making sure the right equipment is on the ground and ordering new meter boxes and lids as needed. In doing this, UMS is also validating data that Columbia has about these connections in its system.

“The data management piece and misbilling is such a key component to these projects,” Mitchell says. “The survey process we’re doing with Columbia has really enhanced the data management, validation and execution of the project.”

One of challenges of the project has been addressing the condition of infrastructure in and around the meters, such as the meter boxes.

When finished, the AMI program will support the utility’s 150,000 metered accounts and provide Columbia Water with 15-minute interval data, as opposed to a monthly, manual read, which will also eliminate data entry errors. As of October 2020, Columbia, working with UMS and Badger Meter, has installed more than 70,000 meters and cellular endpoints so far. According to the utility, the AMI network health has remained strong throughout the install, with more than 99 percent of the meters properly communicating over the network daily. The utility will also reduce its meter reading staff.

Key to the project has been both the internal decision making streamlined through Columbia’s five-member committee but also the project team collaboration between the utility, Badger Meter and UMS despite the slowing of in-person meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“UMS has done an excellent job of ramping up their staff and they’re probably changing out about 6,000 meters a month right now,” says Shaw. “Any issues that come up are addressed very quickly,” adding that the project team has been able to coordinate through regular virtual conferencing since the beginning of COVID lockdowns.

The project is expected to be completed on time in March of 2022.

A Smarter Approach

Shaw considers the project to be a success thus far. He notes that across the water utility landscape and in Columbia, it’s getting easier to see the value of technology like remote leak detection, SCADA, or in this case, AMI, that is aimed at helping utilities better leverage their time and resources.

“Our city council and our senior management at the city are trying to push smart city initiatives,” he says. “We’re trying to embrace new technologies as a way to be more efficient. That’s really important, and with what’s happening economically, we’re all going to have to be more efficient. That was happening pre-COVID, so I think it’s only going to accelerate now.”

Andrew Farr is the managing editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media in the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area. He has covered the water sector in North America for eight years and also covers the North American trenchless construction industry for sister publications Trenchless Technology and NASTT’s Trenchless Today.

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