Advanced Metering Technologies Enable Proactive Efficiency for Water and Gas Utilities

While automatic meter reading has been around for several decades, technological advances combined with economic and environmental conditions are increasing interest in smart metering systems. Aging infrastructures, growing or shifting populations, regional water shortages, changing government regulations and economic conditions are causing utilities to look for more efficient and accurate meter reading options, especially offerings that integrate data analytics.

Automatic meter reading (AMR), advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), hybrid AMR/AMI and the newest offering, advanced metering analytics (AMA), are all gaining traction in the water market. They provide more frequent, efficient and accurate meter readings that can be fed into a utility?s database and billing systems. As a result, growth is anticipated for global and North American sales of advanced water meters.
According to a recent study from IMS Research, an independent supplier of market research to the global energy industry, steady increases in the demand for advanced water meters are expected. In 2010, global shipments of smart metering technology totaled an estimated 5.5 million.

The majority of advanced water meter growth is being driven by North America with the highest estimated advanced water meter shipments in 2010. Although one-way meter shipments are currently outpacing two-way meter shipments, increased growth is in the forecast for two-way meters over the next five years. ?

Overview of Advanced Metering Solutions

Meter reading has come a long way since the days of manually read and recorded data. Metering solutions traditionally have been defined by hardware-based categories: mobile AMR systems, one-way and two-way fixed network AMI systems and hybrid AMR/AMI systems. With the advent of AMA, there is a more advanced system available that mixes hardware and software solutions to automatically collect, analyze and deliver near real-time data.

AMR/AMI Systems

With AMR, meter readers walk or drive by the meter and use a handheld device to collect information from the meter via radio frequency instead of manually reading the meter. AMI systems include a fixed network of transceivers or receivers that are permanently installed to capture data, eliminating the need for a person in the field to collect the data. With an AMI system, the utility has access to hourly interval metering data to assist in customer service and billing processes. With basic AMR, information flows one way ? from the meter to the collection device ? while most AMI systems today provide two-way communication between the utility and the meter.? This enables automatic updates to software and other possible future control functionality at the meter.

Hybrid Systems

For some utilities, it may be difficult to choose between a mobile or fixed network because of fiscal, political or size/geographical issues. In these cases, utilities may instead choose a hybrid approach. With a hybrid system, utilities can mix mobile with fixed network endpoints. Additionally, if a utility is simply not ready to deploy a fixed network, it could install a hybrid system that can easily be upgraded to a fixed network in the future. Hybrid networks also can be used to provide redundancy or serve as a back-up option in the event of a network interruption or failure.

AMA Systems

A new offering being introduced by Badger Meter, AMA takes automatic metering solutions to the next level by providing a proactive, customizable management tool. AMA amplifies the value of AMI by synthesizing metering data and delivering it in a chosen format that facilitates action. It combines two-way fixed network technology with powerful and secure analytics-based software.

AMA supports utilities in six areas: superior customer service delivery; water and energy conservation; revenue management; operations/asset management; government regulation; and information integration. A key advantage of AMA is the ability to program alerts to notify selected utility personnel of specific exception conditions, so they can take appropriate action.

Making the Case for Smart Metering Solutions

AMR/AMI/AMA solutions are taking hold in the water utility market because they offer utilities and their customers a wide array of short and long-term benefits. Because every utility has unique needs, each one values different benefits of advanced metering and must evaluate the costs and benefits of different solutions relative to their situation. The most common motivations for adopting an automated system include: improving customer service and revenue, reducing operating costs, increasing safety and improving conservation.

Following are some key questions utilities can use when considering AMR/AMI/AMA solutions in metering practices.

Q: What cost reductions may be realized by implementing this solution?
A: Automatic reading devices allow for a much more efficient approach to day-to-day utility operations. Centralized and mobile monitoring can increase frequency and accuracy of meter reads while lowering operational expenses. For instance, in an area that contains 100 radio read meters, a mobile meter reader can read the whole route in a matter of minutes, whereas before AMR, a similar route would have taken well over an hour. The ability to read thousands of meters in a few days instead of several months increases efficiency and frees up manpower for other maintenance tasks. It also reduces wear and tear on vehicles.

Q: How can this solution boost safety?
A: Manually reading meters requires the reader to stop every few minutes to get out of the vehicle, walk to the meter to open the lid, and then enter the information into a handheld device. In rural areas, meter readers may have to traverse ditches and face other natural hazards. With mobile AMR, the reader does not have to leave the vehicle. With a fixed network AMI system, the reader does not even have to be on site, freeing up their time for other maintenance or system tasks.

Q: How will this improve customer service/satisfaction?
A: More frequent and accurate meter readings can be integrated into the utility?s database and billing systems using advanced systems. Traditional manual reading intervals may be up to 90 days or more, creating significant lag time in detecting potential problems and resolutions. With more detailed customer usage information at their fingertips, utility customer service representatives can answer consumption and billing questions with specific information that instills confidence. This helps resolve billing disputes and improves customer communication.

In addition, AMA makes it easier to identify possible leaks and alert the homeowner that repairs may need to be made. It can be used to detect continuous flow at the customers? premises through detailed collection at low-use intervals (i.e., in the middle of the night). This reduces unaccounted for water, lowers water bills and improves customer relations.

Other potential billing and customer service benefits include: automatic flagging of high consumption before a customer receives an unexpectedly high bill; improving cash flow management and revenue forecasting by tying detailed consumption information to production data and expected billings; and reducing bill adjustments.

Q: How can advanced metering reduce lost water and increase revenue?
A: AMI/AMA systems improve the ability to identify larger potential distribution leaks. Detecting potential leaks helps to decrease unaccounted for water and the missed revenue associated with it. With AMA, utility personnel can be alerted automatically to potential problems so that issues can be resolved more quickly and efficiently.

Q: How will this solution advance conservation efforts?
A: Many utilities, especially in the American west and southeast are using or considering automatic reading technologies to assist in water conservation efforts. Because automatic meter reading allows for more frequent meter reading and billing, it can be used to parse consumption information into frequent time intervals. The utility and its customers can then look at the consumption profile data for education and awareness, feedback or compliance monitoring/enforcement (such as odd/even day water sprinkling).

Smart Metering into the Future

Advanced metering solutions have begun to pique the interest of water utilities at a rapid rate. Improvements in this technology are helping utilities to boost productivity and protect and manage their assets in unprecedented ways. As water utilities realize the long-lasting benefits automated meter reading and data management technologies have on their customer relations and efficiency, the market will continue to see impressive growth.

Morrice Blackwell, marketing manager at Badger Meter, is an expert in flow measurement, automated meter reading technology/networks and utility management for the water industry. Blackwell joined Badger Meter in 1994 and has gained depth of knowledge through his broad spectrum of positions including senior manufacturing.

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