Gaining Visibility with AMI: Texas Utility Tackles Smart Metering Project

flooded grassy area

A park in Tomball, Texas, just north of the the Faulkey Gully Municipal Utility District in Harris County.

By Zeb Wright

Like many municipalities and utilities around the county, Faulkey Gully Municipal Utility District (MUD) knew they had an aging infrastructure that needed to be addressed. The utility, which serves a rapidly developing suburb northwest of Houston, knew that the meter system was nearing the end of its useful life. Doug Allen, a member of the district board, began investigating an update of the monitoring technology and replacement of the district’s 2,300 residential connections and 700 commercial and agricultural ones.

“I looked at what would happen if we did nothing and just continued with the meters we have now versus solutions from various manufacturers,” Allen said. “Using conservative numbers on our end, I found that switching to smart meters would save us $800,000 over 20 years, and that’s after covering the cost of putting in new infrastructure and other upfront costs.”

Another part of his analysis was comparing vendor networks against building a proprietary one. “Going with a vendor enables you to start getting data immediately, but it’s expensive — about 89 cents per month per meter — and all it does is read,” Allen said. “Building our own data-collection system would give us real-time data and analysis. We’re going to install ultrasonic leak detection on main line piping, so instead of waiting for a water geyser, we’ll know when the problem is very small. With another system, I don’t know that we’d even be able to get that for mainlines.”

The MUD elected to work with Ferguson Waterworks and Mueller on the upgrade, which included a customer portal and leak detection sensors and software. MUD collaborated with Ferguson Waterworks and Mueller for almost a year before the project launch.

Houses with leak detected

The installation went smoothly, thanks in part to the district’s preparation before and responsiveness during the project. “Being prepared upfront is better,” Allen said. He recommends three things: making a data-informed case, conducting fieldwork and verification and finally, collaborate and communicate.

Preparation must begin before the installation to make a data-informed case. Allen’s analysis provided the right level of detail to support decision-making. “One board member was questioning the recommendations, so I showed him the data and he saw the value immediately. I also used conservative numbers to build it so we wouldn’t be promising the pie in the sky results,” Allen said. This expedites approvals and gives stakeholders confidence in the decision to upgrade and work with Ferguson Waterworks.

Additionally, the district and project team were proactive before the project kicked off, performing field work and verifying findings. For example, the district looked at what could be done before installations began to help reduce costs and speed up delivery. The prework also included verifying the meter serial number and size at each location. “That gives you an accurate count of meters needed, so Ferguson can make sure we had all meters on hand for installations,” Allen said.

He notes the district also cleaned all boxes of excessive dirt and reset them as needed. Faulkey Gully’s operator, Municipal Operations and Consulting, cleared out all the meter locations to expose them, so install crews could focus on putting the meters in. They documented any locations with non-plastic lids (including the size) and scheduled a replacement before installation began. The district then double-checked all of this work to validate the accuracy of data points as much as possible.

Core to the success was collaboration and communication. Collectively, MUD, Ferguson Waterworks and Mueller developed a unified team, setting expectations from the onset with a kickoff meeting for all stakeholders. During weekly project calls, stakeholders tracked progress, managed project outcomes and identified potential issues. Working together reduces bottlenecks and issues in the field.

“Ferguson’s personnel, from salesperson, sales management, installation manager to the installation crews, were all very customer service oriented,” Allen said. “They were all very customer satisfaction-driven and flexible to the district and the district’s operator.”

As a result of systematic planning, Faulkey Gully’s installation began on Dec. 16, 2019, and was completed in record time on Feb. 19, 2020. It’s still too early for a robust analysis of benefits and savings, but Allen already sees anecdotal upsides for the district. Chiefly, among the benefits he sees include more efficient use of staff time and reduced vehicle travel costs and gas expenses with the roll-out of automated meter reading. Additionally, he already recognizes increased cost savings and water supply from leak detection, data monitoring and rapid response.

“It’s already paying dividends,” he said. “As much as the water’s costing us and is not getting cheaper — this is a great way to help the district and our customers be smarter about water usage.”
Moreover, customer service and satisfaction are improving. The advanced metering infrastructure program has allowed the MUD to reach out to customers about high water use.

“I reached out to a residential customer because we were showing 25-gallon- an-hour usage around the clock at her location,” Allen said. “She’d gotten her water bill a few minutes before my email arrived and was about to call. It turns out, it was the upstairs toilet. And a little fast food place in our district was showing more than 130 gallons an hour. The operator went out there and, working with the restaurant’s staff, found out a valve in the ice machine was stuck open and water was going straight through.”

With more visibility into the flow of water through the system, the district and its customers can curb water lost to leaks and equipment issues, reduce demand on the stream, increase source sustainability and operate more efficiently.

Zeb Wright is a Business Development Manager with Ferguson Waterworks – Meter and Automation. Having joined Ferguson in 2004, he now leads a team providing all aspects of water metering, including installation, project management and support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *