How to Evaluate Connectivity Options for Smart Water Meters in the IoT Age

The promise of connected smart meters has been discussed for years, and many utilities have used mobile reading solutions for years, but only a few are starting to look seriously at the implementation of fixed network connectivity, especially in North America and Europe. Wireless connectivity is more widely seen as a key enabler but the array of technology available is broad and different forms of metering have specific requirements that make them better-suited to particular wireless technologies. The LoRa Alliance, explains why low power wide area networks (LPWANs) have the attributes that water metering projects demand.

 This drive to digitalize water utilities’ distribution networks will result in an installed base of 400 million smart water meters worldwide by 2026, according to ABI Research. This illustrates the sheer scale of the global water metering footprint and sheds some light on the immense volume of data that water meters will collect and transmit. Management of these data will be complex and involve enormous data management and analytics capabilities.

Importantly, none of this is free. Cloud computing resources and the network capacity to link the meter to the management systems will come at a cost, water suppliers need to carefully balance the value generated with the expenses incurred.

This device-based intelligence reduces the need to transmit exabytes of irrelevant information and the requirement to store and analyze these data pointlessly. At the same time, if a water meter is used to identify an urgent issue such as leakage or that a smart valve needs to be shut off for an operational reason, that information and that command need to be prioritized and communicated by robust networks, securely and quickly so action can be taken rapidly.

Why Water Is Different from Other Utilities

It should be acknowledged that the heritage and crucial need for water supply is the responsibility of local authorities rather than national ones. Although there are exceptions to this, notably in Africa, water utilities in the United States, Europe, India and China are highly localized businesses. This makes the water industry more fragmented than other utilities.

Water utilities need specific functionalities in meter data management (MDM) platforms, such as the flexibility to scale network coverage more progressively and to integrate into water utility systems in areas such as water quality, leak detection, and pressure, etc.  Other requirements are long battery lives, deep coverage, and security at a very affordable cost.

How to Unlock Greater Efficiency

Earlier deployments have seen the adoption of Automatic Meter Reading (AMR), using mobile radio equipment to collect data in walk-by or drive-by mode, which is sometimes confused with AMI in some markets. A key difference here is that AMR solutions provide only a basic set of uplinks of meter data and no alarms in near-real-time, so the services, analytics, and quality of data collected are very different from AMI that regularly communicates more meter data and alarms in up-to-date information.

AMI enables utilities to enjoy greater benefits from improved data granularity. For example, data can be collected at ten-minute intervals and transmitted daily. The water utility can improve operations through demand analysis, determining water leaks seeking the reduction of non-revenue water.

This unlocks substantial value because smart metering with AMI can drive an 8 to 10 percent improvement in the operating efficiency of utilities over four years, according to results from a Birdz smart water deployment in Eau du Grand Lyon (France).

For water utilities that haven’t already transitioned to a remote monitoring model, LPWAN connectivity is the obvious choice because of the ease and speed of installation. For those utilities that prefer AMR, FSK modulation or ZigBee or Bluetooth are options but require heavy investment in labor and fleets. The real promise lies in automated systems that can collect, transmit, analyze meter data and enable downlink commands with minimal human interaction.

Inside the different LPWA networks

LPWAN is being selected by water utilities because it combines extremely long-range – measured in miles – with deep underground and indoor penetration plus battery lifetimes of up to two decades. This field is becoming crowded with LPWAN options like narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), Sigfox and LoRaWAN, see Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 – The respective advantages of Sigfox, LoRaWAN, and NB-IoT. Source: The Korean Institute of Communications and Information Sciences (KICS) as published in ICT Express, March 2019.

For water metering applications, which have relatively low data payloads and seldom require low latency or high quality of service, it’s clear that Sigfox and LoRaWAN offer the range, battery life, coverage capability, deployment ease and cost efficiency the water industry requires. There is much common ground between the technologies, but differences exist which should be considered carefully.

A Wide Developer Ecosystem

Another criterion for selection is the maturity of the technology and ecosystem to offer a greater choice of applications and number of devices.

Public vs. Private LPWANs

Flexibility to choose between public, private or hybrid business models enables water utilities to find the best fit. The numerous deployments and mature experience associated with these networks allow utilities to assess the benefits of public versus private LPWANs from the real-life experiences of other utilities and also to understand the merits between building, buying or sharing, connectivity.

This decision will be dependent on the individual needs of water utilities. If they value the control that having a private network gives them if their installed base covers a manageable area and if they have the upfront capital expenditure capability, building private networks can make sense. However, for some water utilities, the complexity of network configuration, the challenges of product selection and the burden of managing the network will be easier to outsource to a specialist network infrastructure provider on a service model. 

Maintain Security for the Long-Term

Another important factor is security. Water meters need to be secure both to protect user information and the water provider from fraudulent activity but also, and perhaps more importantly, so they do not provide a point of security weakness at which cybercriminals can enter the enterprise network. This is an important point, as not all LPWANs have been designed to fit metering’s general design criteria of low power consumption, low implementation complexity, and high scalability along with separate secured keys for the network operator on one hand and the end-user application on the other and with benefits like mutual authentication, integrity protection and confidentiality.

How LoRaWAN is Being Used by Water Utilities

There is one unlicensed LPWAN technology that addresses all of the considerations mentioned here – LoRaWAN. Already in use by several water utilities, solutions are growing, and many examples of successful deployments now exist. One example, in Spain, involves the deployment of 20,000 water meters by the local utility FACSA in the region of Castellon de la Plana. The project was carried out by IoTsens on behalf of FACSA, which manages water control and tracking in more than 70 cities to serve more than four million citizens, saw the connection of different water meters to the IoTsens cloud platform via LoRaWAN and through a server operated by IoTsens.

The implementation began with a proof of concept involving 600 smart water meters and led to the second step of the current full deployment of which consists of 20,000 water meters connected to the IP67 outdoor LoRaWAN Gateway from MultiTech. The IoTsens solution consists of an integral method of tele-reading meters that collects the data remotely and automatically in near-real-time. Also, the system can work with seven different brands of meters using a single communication platform to achieve fast and efficient management of its supply network.

In Australia, NNNco, a public LoRaWAN operator, has started deployment of a network for connecting 170,000 water meters in the Gold Coast region, illustrating how cities are seeing the benefits of a technology that is ready to use for IoT.

Another example, this time in the United Kingdom involves BT providing its LoRaWAN network to regional water provider, Northumbrian Water. BT has installed approximately 150 sensors in the company’s network to gather data on factors such as water flow, pressure, and quality. This technology was selected because of its ability to support long-life, battery-powered devices over long distances for long durations.

Multi-Million-Meter Deployments

Large telecom operators are committing to LoRaWAN for very large projects. Nova Veolia and its subsidiary Birdz, a pioneer in the remote metering of energy consumption for Smart Cities, are working with Orange to help them digitalize Veolia’s water-related services in France. Their goal is to read more than 70 percent of their meters remotely by 2027 in a deal that will see more than three million water meters connected to public LoRaWAN networks covering more than 30,000 municipalities and 95 percent of the population of metropolitan France.

In the United States, per company press releases, Neptune Technology Group is collaborating with local network providers Senet and Comcast on an IoT solution designed to accelerate smart city projects focused on AMI. The solution combines LoRaWAN networks with Neptune’s water meters and sensors.

Future Considerations

Wirelessly connecting smart water meters is unlocking substantial efficiency gains for water providers across the globe and, as water supplies become more constrained in many locations, greater control of excessive use, limitation of leakage and potential mechanisms to charge more flexibly for water will be required. The commitment of water utilities and large connectivity partners to deploy millions of smart water meters for deployments, spread over several years from now, with lifespans of up to 20 years from now illustrates that connectivity choice is a long-term decision that requires water utilities and meter providers to carefully assess meter design in the light of the likely future business requirements and challenges.

Doing so with the next two decades in mind involves focusing on industry-wide trends rather than specific, short-term issues. Universal themes are the need to use meter data to prevent wastage of water, the need to charge flexibly and at a higher frequency for water consumption and the continued need to be competitive on cost.

It’s of critical importance to select connectivity that can be controlled by the water utility for the long term – or at least to select a technology and provider that can demonstrate an understanding of the water industry and the ability to provide over-the-air upgrades to devices’ software and firmware during the lifespan of a meter.

The water industry remains highly fragmented with localized organizations managing the water supply for their customers. However, there has been and will continue to be substantial mergers and acquisition activity in the marketplace so a truly future-ready smart metering solution will need to be ready to integrate with different systems and approaches adopted by other organizations that may in future become part of the same group.

Fundamentally, water utilities need a cost-effective, robust, reliable, perennial, secure, easy to install wireless technology to support their business’s digital transformation that they are sure will support it and their partners for the long-term. LPWAN solutions tick more of the water industry’s boxes more than cellular connectivity or RF proprietary technologies and have the benefit of positioning them with the connectivity they need for the future.

This article was contributed to WF&M by The LoRa Alliance.

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