More Data Is the Key to Conservation

Water shortages are becoming more common around the country and many areas, especially those in the western United States, are taking aggressive action in enforcing water bans and setting conservation goals. California, for example, plans to reduce yearly water use by 20 percent, or approximately 1.7 million acre-feet (more than 550 million gallons), over the next two decades. In addition, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council speculates that a third of the counties in the U.S. will face water shortages by mid-century, and in 400 counties the shortages will be severe. The report bases its conclusions on in-depth analysis of publicly available water-usage data.

As a response, many municipal water systems across the country are using smart water meters, which allow two-way communications with the utility, as part of the strategy to reduce water usage and conserve resources. In fact, conservation is today almost as important as operational efficiency as a driver for implementing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

In the past, water utilities could cost-justify automated-meter-reading (AMR) technology, which provided one-way communication with the utility, as a way to replace the traditional meter-reading process with a more cost-effective method. Today, utilities are turning to advanced, two-way AMI systems that provide more data to help them find leaks more quickly, deliver water more effectively, and encourage consumers to reduce usage. A recent report by Oracle, Testing the Water: Smart Metering for Water Utilities, found that found that 62 percent of water utility managers consider early leak detection the most significant benefit of smart meter technology, while 35 percent believe supplying customers with tools to monitor and reduce water use is crucial.

Utilities have made a lot of headway in using data collected by AMR systems. For example, some municipal utilities use data from AMR systems to analyze consumption patterns to find leaks. Other utilities let consumers look at current usage on a web site, which encourages conservation. But these systems, based solely on the data collected from one-way AMR solutions, just scratch the surface of what can be done using two-way smart meters.

Conserving water

In the Oracle report cited above, 76 percent of water consumers who responded said they are concerned about water conservation. Most believe they could conserve more, and 71 percent would reduce their usage if they had detailed information on their water consumption to motivate them.

With the help of meter-data management systems, the hourly data provided by two-way AMI systems can be used to develop flexible rate structures that more fairly distribute costs and help consumers manage their usage. Information about water usage gleaned from two-way systems also can be provided to customers, making it easier to monitor usage and make real-time decisions that encourage conservation.

The hourly data provided by two-way water AMI systems also can be analyzed and used to enforce conservation measures such as water-use restriction rules. Without two-way AMI, water restrictions are difficult to enforce. Utility personnel must actually see the consumer breaking the water ban before enforcement measures are taken. Two-way systems allow utilities to analyze consumption patterns to find problems.

Improving customer service

While automatic collection of meter readings allows utilities to bill more accurately, hourly readings can help utilities increase outreach and deliver more personalized service to their customers. For example, instead of waiting until a customer calls to inquire about a high water bill, hourly data could be analyzed to identify customers whose usage patterns might indicate continuous consumption. A postcard, e-mail or phone call to the customer would prompt them to check for leaks within their home or business.

Reducing Non-Revenue Water Loss

A significant advantage of two-way AMI systems is they allow synchronous system reads. This means that all system clocks in the meters are set to the same time, making it possible to take a network-wide reading that can be used in a system-wide water balance to determine how much water is actually getting to customers. Typically, water utilities only perform a system balance by reviewing the last year?s worth of data. By offering an accurate, time synchronized snapshot of the entire water system, the latest fixed-network AMI systems make the process of balancing and reconciliation easier and more efficient.

Regular system balancing has a number of benefits. Most notable is the ability to identify areas of possible system leaks prior to a major main break or other service disruption. Using time synchronization, utilities can isolate areas of the system that may have leaks, and determine whether these are occurring before or after the water meter. Once the data is analyzed, utilities can take additional measures, such as employing acoustic leak detection, to accurately pinpoint the location of the leak, or check specific accounts where abnormal consumption is occurring due to tampering or other problems.

Extending Infrastructure Life

Every unit of water that is saved as a result of improved billing accuracy, conservation or reduced leakage prolongs the life of existing infrastructure. In its 2009 Report Card for America?s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the nation?s drinking water systems face an annual funding shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging infrastructure and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations. This trend is complicated by geographic shifts in population, requiring system expansion in areas of high growth, and maintenance of aging systems in areas of diminishing populations with correspondingly smaller rate bases. While many water systems are approaching the end of their useful life (with some pipes well past their useful life), the difficult economic climate suggests that the funding required for costly infrastructure improvements will be difficult to obtain. That is one reason why using AMI to reduce usage, and the corresponding stress on the distribution system, is so important.

Finally, AMI solutions that offer two-way, time-synchronized communications provide real-time information that can help utilities and their customers make informed decisions about water usage. These decisions can help utilities and the municipalities they serve meet conservation goals today, and into the future.

Dean Slejko is Product Marketing Manager for Aclara, a part of the Utility Solutions Group of ESCO Technologies Inc. (NYSE:ESE).

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