Elevating Infrastructure with Smart Water

Safford, Arizona

How the City of Safford, Arizona, Modernized Its Metering Infrastructure & Transformed the Approach of Utility Staff


Located roughly 90 miles northeast of Tucson, the City of Safford, Arizona, is a small community where the local economy is driven largely by copper mining. The city and its neighboring communities convey the feel of small town America with desert plains and a mountainous backdrop.

The arid climate of the region of course presents its challenges in the area of water resources and sustainability. The city government of Safford – which consists of a little more than 100 people – owns and operates all utility operations that include water distribution, sewer collection, gas, electric and trash disposal. The water utility operation alone has 21 employees including management. Its 255 miles of water main serve approximately 8,500 customers through about 8,000 water meter connections, all serving a population of about 15,000.

Safford is not unlike other small community water systems in the United States that face many challenges on a regular basis. Small systems typically cost more to operate on a per capita basis than larger systems due to a lack of economy of scale. Small water systems can also face scarce financial resources, aging infrastructure and high staff turnover. Addressing such challenges requires a concerted effort by local water system leaders as well as resource organizations that support utilities.

In the case of Safford, prior to 2013, the city realized it was facing serious challenges with both aging water infrastructure and retiring workforce at the water department. Due to its aging infrastructure, specifically its meters, the water department, the city and its business services department began conversations about implementing an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system that would offer long-term benefits like more accurate meter reads and improved billing.

According to Julie Bryce, former business services AMI administrator for Safford, the city was losing about 30 percent of its revenue due to inaccurate metering. Some of its mechanical meters were even thought to have been in use from the 1940s and 50s.

Turning to AMI

Once the decision to go with an AMI system was made, then came the process of evaluating meters and exploring all the new technology the water utility sector has to offer. But the decision didn’t happen overnight.

“Because we are government, we moved slowly,” Bryce says jokingly. “It was a few years of constantly meeting with multiple vendors,” adding that the evaluation process was taken very seriously to ensure the city would select a technology it could afford but appropriate for its needs. The city was also interested in a technology that would serve all three of its utilities – water, electric and gas – which made the evaluation process even more intensive.

“If we were going to implement a new system, it needed to last a while,” says Bryce, who became heavily involved in the project to make sure the city was achieving its revenue goals. “With the whole industry moving forward with new technology, we knew we wanted to get up to that pace, as well.”

After a long period of holding multiple meetings with vendors each week, the city ultimately decided to go with Sensus, a Xylem brand, for the metering infrastructure. That decision was made in part because Sensus’ business, although heavily immersed in the gas and electric side, is most closely tied to water, which is Safford’s biggest utility and had the most needs.

“Sensus is geared more toward water and water is our biggest utility,” says Bryce. “We decided to go that route because that’s where we would need the most resources and knowledge.”

Installation

Safford’s AMI upgrade was funded through capital improvement funds in the city’s budget. Beginning in April 2013, Safford began installing iPERL meters from Sensus. The city and water department did not hire a program manager or consultant for the work and coordinated entirely with Sensus on the program. The installation itself was done completely in-house by Safford and was deployed in May 2016, bringing the total to about 17,800 meters installed between water, electric and gas.

Sensus’ electromagnetic iPERL meters use magnetic technology to help capture previously unmeasured flow. Because of this, they can help increase returns, operational efficiency and ultimately recapture lost revenue.

Dan Pinney, global director of water marketing for Sensus, explains that the iPERL meter is well suited for small utility applications due to the remote monitoring and diagnosis capabilities, as well as smart water alarms to help detect a range of issues in the distribution system.

“When a small utility looks at something like their cash register, the meter, they can spend the time to go out and validate whether their meters are accurate or wearing over time. Or, they can make an investment in technology that does that for them,” says Pinney.

“They have less resources and their responsibilities tend to be broader but that’s because they have to be,” continues Pinney. “Those smaller utilities make that investment in a static technology so they don’t have to continuously worry about that [meter] population.”

Communications Network

In addition to the iPERL meter installation, Safford decided to go with a Sensus FlexNet communications network to transmit, collect and analyze customer usage data. Utilities can use FlexNet for electric, water and gas systems, and since Safford had upgraded their metering infrastructure across each of those systems, the FlexNet communication network made sense.

FlexNet technology allows utilities to remotely update and upgrade services, conduct on-demand readings, identify non-revenue water, restore power and send alerts when an event occurs.

“From my perspective the needs of utilities are fairly consistent regardless of size. That doesn’t mean they’re the same, but they’re consistent,” Pinney says, in reference to the adaptability of the FlexNet network.

“For example, a utility may not have the money to invest in AMI, so it might invest in AMR. With FlexNet, a utility can approach the system any way it wants. In a rural area where they don’t want to put in infrastructure, they can do drive-by. If they have a very urban area, they can put in infrastructure and use AMI. But they can manage that with the exact same device. They can also pick and choose what they want to do,” he adds, noting that a utility can install a network, own it and manage it in-house or Sensus can install the network and manage it per a service agreement.

According to Bryce, Safford has been able to more accurately measure consumption and access near real-time data that has helped with customer alerts since the FlexNet system has been installed.

“When we looked at FlexNet, one of the biggest things was how we were going to be able to utilize it to educate our customers and notify them a lot sooner of possible issues going on,” she says.
To help with that process, Safford engaged Sensus personnel for training, conducted webinars and held consistent meetings about getting the network properly set up and also to make sure city staff was trained in managing the system. To assist with the training end of things, Safford coordinated heavily with its Sensus distributor as well as the Sensus Partner and Advisor Network (SPAN), a group comprised of Sensus customers that exchange ideas, discuss challenges and provide feedback and insight on product development and implementation.

Next, the City of Safford is looking into deploying Sensus Analytics, a platform that would allow the utility to customize and view data from multiple systems on a single dashboard, along with the ability to share that data across the organization on desktops, tablets or smart phones.

Gila Valley

The arid climate of Safford’s location presents its challenges in the area of water resources and sustainability. In addition to serving local customers, water is also used for crop irrigation as shown here in the Gila Valley.

Getting Tech Savvy

Bryce notes that a big challenge for Safford to overcome in the course of the AMI project was the transformation of the staff from an old school mentality to one that could efficiently manage a system built around data and analytics.

“It was a huge change all around for the city in general,” she says. “A lot of our employees were used to the ‘this is just how you do it, this is how we’ve always done it [outlook].’ We had to start learning to think outside the box. A lot of them weren’t so tech savvy and this project really helped to grow them professionally.”

Lorie Pedregon, lead business services representative for the City of Safford, who became involved in the project working with Bryce after the city’s AMI department was created, agrees and adds that the SPAN group was a valuable tool in helping to modernize the utility staff’s approach.

SPAN includes an online platform that connects Sensus customers so that they can communicate about installation and maintenance issues and troubleshoot system problems. The network was first launched in 2008 by FlexNet users and is available to all Sensus customers. Pedregon says the return on investment for Safford and the city’s customers thus far has been clear.

“With FlexNet, for customers who were questioning their water usage or their gas, we’re able to go in and show them exactly what they were using, what time they were using it and how much they used,” she says, noting that a benefit of AMI is that it provides near real-time data about what is happening in the system.

“Before we had our AMI, we really didn’t have anything to show our customers so they could have that confidence in us. Now we’re able to show them,” she says.

edregon adds that the city also does one annual lead adjustment in which customers’ bills are adjusted due to undetected leakage. She estimates the city has since reduced those costs by 40 percent now based on the more accurate data Safford is getting through AMI. The city has also eliminated truck rolls for meter reading, reducing its field budget by about $8,000 annually.

“Like any new program when you roll it out at the beginning, people have misconceptions of what smart meters are,” adds Bryce. “But as you progress and you can show them and help them in the long run, they can see the value in it.”


Andrew Farr is the managing editor of Water Finance & Management, published by Benjamin Media. 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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