Cities Turn to Tech to Find New Ways to Optimize Meters, Recover Revenue

By Quinn Jackson-Elliott

Every day brings a new headline that reinforces the severity of the drought in the Western United States:

  • Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States and part of a system that supplies water to at least 40 million people across seven states and northern Mexico, is at its lowest level since the 1930s.
  • Much of the Southwest is in a megadrought, the driest 20-year period since the last megadrought in the late 1500s, and the second-driest since the 800s.
  • Government forecasters are suggesting severe conditions are likely to continue at least into late fall.

These once-in-a-century conditions have created an immediate need for cities to monitor their water use to ensure their resources are allocated effectively to identify non-revenue water and opportunities to recover uncaptured revenue.

A recent report from S&P Global Ratings found that municipalities fighting the drought may generate less income from their water systems because there’s less water to sell. Analysts said that could have drastic implications on a city’s budget, impacting economic growth, affecting property values and lowering credit ratings when borrowing. Because cities typically finance their infrastructure projects with debt, a lower credit rating could keep new projects from getting started or force municipalities to pay higher interest rates to fund those projects.

It’s understandable if water utility leaders feel like they’re running out of options as they look for anything that will help them manage their budget, workforce and operations. But some utilities have found success through a data-driven approach to mitigating water loss and recovering revenue.

By placing sensors on large commercial and industrial water meter assets, cities can determine which meters are malfunctioning, the cause, and how to prioritize repairs. Even though they make up a small percentage of the overall meter population a utility manages, those large commercial and industrial meters account for a significant portion of water revenue. Under normal conditions, those high-value meters can lose accuracy by more than 10 percent in a year, so ensuring they are performing at optimum accuracy is imperative during a drought.

Optimizing Meters in Texas

As home to the headquarters for some of the world’s largest corporations, one North Texas city relies on its commercial water meters for a substantial portion of its water revenue. Although large meters make up just 1% of the total meters in the system, they bring in around 30 percent of the revenue. Making sure these meters are working properly and measuring consumption accurately — especially as more people return to the office this year and usage goes up — can make a huge difference in the city’s budget.

A 20-meter pilot program tested an advanced asset management tool that could continuously monitor water flow and diagnose potential problems. By quickly diagnosing meter issues ranging from registers to crossover issues to meters that were the incorrect size, the city found 9 million gallons of non-revenue water.

Recovering Revenue in Atlanta

Atlanta has been a leader in incorporating innovation and technology into its business practices. Within the Department of Watershed Management, the city uses data for more informed decision-making around asset management.

Starting in 2018, Atlanta found more than a million dollars in recoverable revenue for the water department in three months. As a result, Atlanta expanded the program to 700 meters and identified $10 million in potential revenue in less than 12 months. A $300 repair to one Atlanta meter to improve meter accuracy resulted in a gain of $53,000 a month to the city. That type of return results in an immediate transfer of real-time dollars to a city’s infrastructure, where the additional money can be used to fund additional projects in the department.

Today’s Unprecedented Conditions Need Innovative Solutions

Western cities have turned to technology before to battle the drought, but as conditions worsen, the tools that have worked in the past won’t be enough to handle this year and future years. To better address these issues — and change the way water is managed and conserved — utilities must begin with getting an accurate picture of where their water is going.

Commercial water meters are the cash registers for water utilities. The average monthly revenue from one of these high-value meters can bring in thousands each month. But too often, government officials don’t have a complete understanding of which of these meters are functioning correctly and could be missing out on valuable revenue.

By optimizing metering and associated services, cities can ensure revenue for delivered water is fully realized.

Quinn Jackson-Elliott is senior director of business development for Olea Edge Analytics. She has a diverse business background with experience in government, consulting, client services and utility management. In her current role, she focuses on revenue recovery, asset management and operational efficiency to achieve results. She has a passion for helping water utilities solve problems by integrating technology as a key component of utility management.

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