Optimizing Your Metering Infrastructure: What’s Trending in Metering in 2017


PLUS: Inside Sacramento’s Accelerated Water Meter Program

By Andrew Farr

In a popular analogy often used in the industry, water meters are frequently likened to cash registers – the point at which a product or service is quantified and purchased. In the case of a water utility, meters represent the means by which customers’ water use is measured and monetized.

Simply put, the accuracy and efficiency of water meters are essential to a utility’s financial well-being.

There is much to consider when implementing a large-scale metering program or upgrading existing metering infrastructure. Because water meters are impacted by the behavior of the distribution system, many factors go into successful metering.

Today, almost every water utility uses some form of “smart technology” to monitor and manage its distribution system. As the technology for smart metering has evolved, utilities have begun to apply the data they collect in new ways, looking beyond automated meter reads and improved billing systems.

In November, Milwaukee-based manufacturer Badger Meter released four key trends that the company anticipates will shape the water utility industry in 2017. The trends range from how water utilities choose the right metering system for its needs, to how they can go about creating more efficient water infrastructure for their communities. The four key themes Badger Meter notes are: growth in cellular communications; interest in implementing managed solutions; acceptance of software as a service (SaaS); and recognizing the importance of the meter.

“I think the water utility market is no different than any other market that you see today – it’s all being data driven,” says John Fillinger, director of utility marketing at Badger Meter. “The more data we can have, the better off we are and the more informed decisions we can make.”

Cellular Endpoints vs. Traditional AMI

As Fillinger notes, water metering in 2017, similar to almost every other industry, is largely about data – specifically, getting data from Point A to Point B so that the result is useful information on which to base decision making.

Nearly every advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system already uses cellular communication to transmit data about water use. However, traditional AMI has historically used gateways to collect data from endpoints and transmit it back to the utility. Newer systems that use cellular endpoints, as Fillinger notes as one of the new key trends, can be used to send data from an endpoint directly back to the utility, eliminating the need for a proprietary gateway. Due to the flexibility of cellular endpoints, they can be deployed quickly from targeted implementations for large commercial customers and hard-to-read locations to full-scale rollouts.

“A cellular system enhances the user experience by eliminating the gateway completely and allowing the head-end software to reach out directly to the endpoint and use that as the communications platform, rather than having an endpoint essentially tie in to a proprietary gateway and then go into the utility,” Fillinger says. “With an AMI system, there are multiple paths in the communication. By eliminating that gateway, you’re minimizing the communication complexity.”

Fillinger also says that eliminating the proprietary network provides flexibility, scalability and the ability for the water utility to concentrate on what it does best – running the utility.

Managed Solutions & SaaS/NaaS

Managed solutions, while not an offering specific to Badger Meter, are another area in which utilities are taking advantage of additional data management services. A managed solution essentially involves utilities outsourcing day-to-day operations in an effort to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Within a managed solutions approach, utilities can implement solutions such as software-as-a-service (Saas), which is an approach that takes the data management and software upgrades away from the utility. A network-as-a-service (NaaS) approach involves taking the responsibility for the deployment of the AMI network and taking asset monitoring away from the responsibility of the utility.

The basic concept behind a managed solution, Fillinger says, is that utility personnel are generally not experts in communications infrastructure management and the IT resources needed for software and hardware support for AMI systems. For example, when an AMI system is deployed, some of the maintenance tasks that exist include the ongoing maintenance of the gateways, as well as keeping track of cellular and electric bills that come with each gateway. Gateways, which are also servers themselves, have electrical components that need to be checked usually every 12 to 18 months.

“If that maintenance is not being done, the system performance can suffer,” Fillinger says. “When you think about an AMI system, I’m not sure that all water utilities have that detailed understanding of RF, the electric or the general computer ‘stuff’ that comes along with it. A lot of those things can get missed in a utility’s upfront analysis of what is required to maintain a system long term.”

In a provider-managed cloud-based systems approach, the provider will install and maintain the operation of the network, usually leaving the utility responsible for the meter and endpoint maintenance. The software applications are then hosted by the solutions provider, which allows utility staff to spend its time focused more on utility operations, rather than software technology issues. Badger Meter’s BEACON AMA managed solution, for instance, is hosted off-site on a global cloud hosting service. All that is needed to access the software is a personal computer and browser.

“I think the water utility market is no different than any other market that you see today – it’s all being data driven. The more data we can have, the better off we are and the more informed decisions we can make.”

–John Fillinger, director of utility marketing, Badger Meter

Managed solutions are also scalable to both large- or small-sized utilities and can also be tailored to different applications, such as mobile or fixed network based on the number of endpoints deployed. However, costs always need to be taken into account when doing a business case analysis for any AMI system.

Water utilities are finding cloud-computing to be a viable alternative to investing money and staff time in maintaining and updating their own servers and operating software. Cloud-based platforms use open-source software that is not reliant on any one vendor. The platforms are subscription based and utilities pay for the number of endpoints that are deployed. Cloud-based software is quick to deploy, does not require any hardware purchases, includes automatic software updates and can be scaled up or down as needed.

“As we continue to evolve down the technology path, solutions that provide more data can help a utility more actively understand what’s going on in their system and more proactively manage things that may occur based on data coming in,” Fillinger adds. “Utilities are more proactive in understanding the condition of the system versus waiting until [problems occur].” 

Sacramento’s Accelerated Water Meter Program


Sacramento’s projected meter installations from now until the targeted completion of the Accelerated Water Meter Program in 2020.

Sacramento’s projected meter installations from now until the targeted completion of the Accelerated Water Meter Program in 2020.

As noted earlier, when a utility upgrades its metering infrastructure or installs a new system altogether, the project goes beyond just the metering or AMI network aspects. There’s financing, meter selection, installation, distribution system maintenance, customer outreach and more. Comprehensive metering programs can get even more complex when utilities are faced with challenges that can force such projects to be time sensitive.

In 2005, the City of Sacramento began one of the most significant capital improvement projects in its history. With 80 percent of the city’s water service connections unmetered, this huge undertaking will install water meters so that all water service connections are metered by 2025, transitioning customers to a metered rate, as required by a state mandate. The city also needed to address aging infrastructure, which meant that many of the installations would need to include additional improvements, such as relocating or replacing water mains. The mandate did not provide additional funding to help offset costs for the improvements.

Over the past 12 years, the city has secured funding through rate increases, grants and bond sales to help accelerate the program and minimize the financial burden on customers. But in 2015, the Sacramento Department of Utilities (DOU) was asked to significantly accelerate the program.

Some water mains are also located in residents’ backyards between houses, and some of the remaining meter installations require those mains to be relocated to the street or require the meters to be installed on service laterals in backyards.

Some water mains are also located in residents’ backyards between houses, and some of the remaining meter installations require those mains to be relocated to the street or require the meters to be installed on service laterals in backyards.

“Northern California has historically been a water-rich area, so residential metering had not been a necessity to manage water demands for many utilities,” says Chris Cleveland, vice president and senior project manager for Carollo Engineers, which was brought on to manage the accelerated program.

“The city made a decision that due to the drought and lack of being fully metered, they didn’t have the ability to help their residents understand how much water they were using and also use meters as a tool to help [DOU] reduce water usage on an individual, residential basis.”

When DOU made the decision to accelerate the program in 2015, it moved the projected completion date up five years from 2025 to 2020, with the goal of having the city fully metered. To date, nearly 100,000 meters have been installed, bringing the city to 70 percent metered and leaving roughly 40,000 meters left to install.

According to Cleveland, Sacramento DOU has historically done a lot of the design, construction bidding, inspection and administrative work in-house. However, due to the time sensitive nature of the project, once the decision was made to accelerate the program, the DOU needed a new approach.

“They realized that they were basically doubling the speed of what they were doing,” says Cleveland. “They weren’t going to be able to handle that all in-house, so they reached out to us to help them develop the framework of the program and to be the program manger to help them implement it.”

Along with managing the remaining 40,000 water meter installations, Carollo is also managing an array of additional infrastructure work, including replacing and relocating water mains. Many of the water mains in Sacramento’s service area are in poor condition and cannot be fitted with metered services until they are replaced. Another problem is that some of the mains are too small to meet modern fire flow requirements. A large number of water mains are also located in residents’ backyards between houses.

The majority of the meters that have been installed up to this point in the program were standard arrangements in which the water mains were located under the street with service laterals connecting to homes. But many of the remaining meter installations require the water mains located in the backyards to be relocated to the street or require the meters to be installed on service laterals in backyards, which presents other construction challenges.

“One of the benefits of having a program-level approach rather than taking these as individual projects is the coordination that’s needed for all the activities, getting the reviews and permitting requirements that may be needed, as well as any public coordination,” says Felicia James, who serves as the program manager for Carollo Engineers.

Over the next four years, the program plans to install 80 miles of water mains.

Data Flow

James says part of the program-level coordination is also to assist the utility with data flow, and coordinating with customer information systems, GIS and construction and engineering activities to create a streamlined process of utility operations. Since the residential properties were not previously metered, the utility was in a good position to install AMI from the beginning and is utilizing the city’s geographic information system (GIS) to integrate its metering data along with other various data components.

“The approach that we’re using is taking advantage of the GIS infrastructure and linking directly with GIS to help the utility get its automated meter reading results into a customer database as efficiently as they can,” says James. “Having this workflow from planning through design, construction and implementation is new for the city, and being able to link all these things.”

Cleveland also notes the approach as being beneficial to managing the program internally, as well as providing a tool for local government and the public. “I think what’s pretty unique about this program is the use of GIS as the foundation of multiple tools and workflows,” he says.

As part of the program, Carollo has helped the DOU develop customized dashboards using Microsoft SharePoint that can present project information for various uses. The dashboard is being used for internal administration of the program for DOU and the program management team, with separate internet portals for elected officials to track program progress and for residents to view information on upcoming project activity, traffic impacts and what they can expect to gain from the program and how it impacts them.

Meters Matter

A brand and logo for the Accelerated Water Meter Program were also created to bring an identity to the program’s goals.

Customer Outreach

Public communication has been another important aspect to Sacramento and its city council, and part of implementing this program included developing a public outreach plan. As part of a coordinated effort to communicate with residents, the program held customer focus groups and actively gained input from customers from across the city and their past experiences on prior construction project. A brand and logo for the program were also created to bring an identity to the program’s goals.

Customer outreach initiatives all fell under the responsibility of Carollo as the program manager.

“We tried to link the experience that they were going to see associated with the construction to why we’re doing the program and how it’s associated with better managing their water consumption and responding to the drought concerns,” says James.

The effort also includes coordinating with council districts, holding public open houses to discuss the program; reformatting notification letters that go out to customers, notices about new construction, new fire hydrants to be installed, new water mains, affected traffic patterns and more.

“We tried to create a unified vision of what they’re going to see and provide them the information in order to minimize the number of questions and calls coming in,” James adds. “We really tried to take a proactive approach.”

As far as overall project challenges, Cleveland doesn’t hesitate to note the speed.

“It’s such a big program and the timeline was set from day one as to when the finish line was,” he says, noting the change of pace for the city from its work in-house now to the accelerated program with Carollo. “It’s a very high-visibility project for DOU. Taking all the tasks that have to happen from Notice to Proceed to putting the last meter in the ground, and figuring out how to get it done in such a short timeframe at this scale. That, by far, I think is the biggest challenge.”

The project currently has about $230 million worth of program management, city costs, construction management and construction costs remaining.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to metering trends in 2017, Fillinger agrees that overall customer service is a growing area of focus not only for water utilities, but for the technology they’re using. He notes that while AMI systems have greatly benefitted utility management in ways different from even a decade ago, they’re also used now to provide usable information to end-users.

“We’re seeing that water utilities are moving forward with goals of improving customer service,” he says. “When you traditionally looked at water utilities, that wasn’t a focus of theirs. But today that’s one of their main goals in deploying a system, and they’re asking, ‘How do I better serve my end water consumers?’ What better way to do this than by providing usage data and proactive messaging to help them?”

Badger Meter’s key trends note that while some may consider water meters to be a commodity, investing in accurate, long-lasting meters adds value to the total system, drives revenues and helps to ensure the reliability of decision-making information provided by the metering software. Because the software is only as good as the data it relies on, that’s where the quality of the water meter comes in. And Fillinger says that’s why the water meter itself remains the most important aspect of any metering project.

“No matter what happens, the meter is the important piece of any system that’s deployed,” he says. “You can put in the best communication system, but without an accurate meter, it doesn’t make a difference what information you have because it’s probably not accurate in the first place.”

Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

Leave a Reply

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