AMI: More than Metering

intro-picHow Expanding Data Applications Are Transforming Utility Asset Management

As Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) for water systems and its capability continues to evolve, utilities are looking beyond automated meter reads and improved billing systems. Smart metering is no longer just about metering.

Today, almost every city is using “smart technology” to monitor and manage its water supply and distribution while trying to maintain affordable rates. There are regions where water is scarce and drought is impacting water use. There are also regions where water is expensive and non-revenue water is a problem due to both apparent and real losses. Technology exists to assist in these areas and it is constantly changing. As this technology advances, utilities in turn are applying the data they collect in new ways.

In addition to simply measuring water use, AMI data now provides utilities information about specific usage patterns in a distribution system. It can also assist them with pressure management and help determine the location of possible leaks. Water utilities are taking this information and applying it to improve other areas such as billing and customer service.

“The key trends in the utility space right now are a big focus on data analytics and understanding how we can use data analytics to shore up key areas of concern such as water security, climate change and conservation,” says Christine Scorza, senior director of product management at Aclara. “Right now there’s a big push to use AMI and interval data to work through consumer engagement and education to help consumers understand the value and the benefits of the AMI network.”

Scorza says that because of these trends, metering and software manufacturers are making changes to their product offerings and focusing on pushing out analytics in a way that helps customers with operational efficiency. By helping utilities to identify data anomalies, they can determine changes in consumption and the reason for changes in consumption, she says. Understanding these data points better allows utilities to take action.

Applying Data in Different Ways

With the many improvements to the capability of AMI networks, some questions are raised. How do you determine what kind of data is right for a particular utility? What information will benefit the utility most? Scorza says it depends on the use case.

“In some cases, [utilities] are looking for assistance in identifying issues and looking specifically at trend analysis,” she says. “They want to see what the typical or average baseline is for a particular area. In some cases, they want to see how weather affects — or does it affect — that trending baseline. That’s particularly important in regional areas where conservation is important.”

But data analytics and what a particular utility wants to gain also depend on several factors including cost and the size of the utility. After all, implementing an AMI network across a utility’s service area can be expensive, especially for a large system in a major metropolitan area. In response to this, AMI networks can often be scaled to how large or small the utility is. Thus, metering and software vendors are looking to assist utilities by changing the cost model.

In small- to mid-size utilities, where IT staff is small at best, vendors can provide operational solutions, such as cloud-based software, or in many cases, the vendor can run the network for the water utility. This helps take the burden off the water utility to do things they may not be experts at.

“There are some utilities that seem to be more data savvy, and they like to see data served up in some sort of operational dashboard where they can see data trends being highlighted for them and they can make decisions about what actions to take,” Scorza says. “If we’re talking about a less sophisticated utility, or those that are resource-constrained, we offer opportunities to fill that gap in a services-based model. Where we have the ability to run the network, we can also run the analytics and highlight different programs and support their analytical needs to show the utility behavior across the network to help them make sense of it.”

Operational Efficiency

Leak detection and pressure and flow monitoring are a few key aspects of distribution system management that are contributing to how AMI networks are now being used to improve operational efficiency.

Consider leak detection in a home, for instance. It is enabled by smart metering because of the ability to collect hourly data and track consumption. If consumption never goes to zero, it’s likely there’s a leak within the home. Data from the meter helps determine leaks beyond the meter. Likewise, finding leaks before the meter can now be achieved by using data from the AMI network.

One way this can be done is by using acoustic monitoring throughout a service territory. Aclara’s fixed network AMI uses correlated leak detection, which applies acoustic loggers that determine the location of a leak based on its distance from the logger. Because the fixed network AMI is constantly monitioring the system, it can show data based on the possible location of a leak, which can then be pinpointed.

Scorza says that while correlated leak detection is nothing new, the difference is that using the AMI network to locate leaks eliminates the need for field crews to perform leak detection. This trend is moving leak detection away from being something that is performed by field crews to something that is constantly monitored by the fixed network.

Scorza says one of the most beneficial aspects of new data from AMI networks is being able to relay this information to end-users to show them that the utility is taking proactive measures to ensure conservation, reliable service and accurate billing.

“On the consumer side, I think a lot of utilities understand that they need to demonstrate the value to their customer base,” she says. “They’re asking questions about how they actually show their customers that this is beneficial to them, as well. That’s where setting up conservation programs, bill pay notification programs or just providing charts where they can see their usage and helping their customer base understand what it means, is very different than if they were previously doing quarterly billing.”

Billing and Customer Service

The enhanced clarity of information from AMI networks, and the ability to better track water use and consumption, is having a notable impact on customer service. Take the City of Toronto, for example. In 2010, Toronto launched its Water Meter Program, a five-year capital project between the city and Neptune Technology Group that installed automated water meters on the Aclara STAR network in more than 470,000 homes and businesses throughout the city.

Recently, the program launched MyWaterToronto, an online web portal that allows customers to view their water use information from their computer or mobile device. The tool was loaded with more than 1 billion water meter readings, which enables customers to view their water use data from Jan. 1, 2015, up to the day before they log on. The portal uses Neptune’s N_SIGHT IQ platform to process, organize and analyze more than 2.2 million water meter readings per day.

“This allows customers to go online and basically look at their water use information on a daily increment level, a monthly level or a weekly level or even over a whole year,” says Carlo Casale, manager of the Water Meter Program at Toronto Water. “This is all data that’s coming in from our automated meters. It really helps customers better understand their water use and also promotes water conservation.”

The tool also provides additional details such as temperature and precipitation to help customers better understand why they may have used more or less water during a particular time period.

The program was rolled out on a ward-by-ward basis in Toronto, and, according to Casale, was a significant undertaking due to the extensive communication and logistics with scheduling appointments with the public which was necessary to install the meters in homes, businesses and institutions across the city. Casale says MyWaterToronto not only provides specific water use information to customers, but also reduces the need for the utility to dispatch personnel for dispute tests if a customer has concerns about a high water bill. Staff is able to assist customers with what they call a “one call resolution.”

“If a customer calls in with a high water bill, we now have the data to talk to customers and show them their water use,” he says. “It’s had a big impact on the amount of work. The discussion with callers on the phone has reduced our efforts in resolving their inquiries, and in some cases, customers are actually going online to look at the data and they are able to come to a conclusion about this without even calling us.

“If you can offer customers a portal to look at water use, then you’ve improved customer service. It can be tough communications sometimes if you have an unhappy customer, but if you’re allowing a customer to go online and have them come to the same conclusion about their water use as opposed to me telling them, it’s just better customer service.”

Scorza agrees, noting that another benefit of the customer service aspects of AMI networks is being able to assist customers who struggle to pay their bills.

“If a utility is struggling, for example, with customers who are not paying their bill, we may analyze data usage and payment history to try and figure out if we can find a way to actually do customer outreach that encourages balanced billing, for example, or give them promotional opportunities to help them save money on their water bill working with the utility directly,” she says.

What’s Next?

Smart metering technology is constantly evolving, and it seems the water utilities have gotten to a point where they are now capitalizing on its full capability and managing systems based on that capability.

Scorza says water use data and allowing consumers the ability to track it will continue to be a trend that not only will influence how the technology is developed, but with how utilities will use it to improve customer service, similar to the work Toronto Water has done.

“Looking forward, I think you’re going to see an expansion into different types of analytics for pressure monitoring and flow monitoring and more adoption of consumption data being embedded into your customer outreach — using online web tools and consumer alerts,” she says. “I think you’ll start to see a transition in expanding the use and application of the AMI network.”

Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

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