Redefining Meter Maintenance Amid Digital Transformation

water meter

By James Smith

Hop into the driver’s seat of a new electric vehicle (EV) and enjoy the smooth ride. Relax in the knowledge that your journey is being monitored by an array of onboard sensors and software as well as remote analytics to ensure the mechanical and digital systems are operating as designed. Long into the road trip, you look for a fuel gauge and then remember — you don’t have to stop at the gas station. As time passes, routine oil changes are replaced with less frequent service checkups on battery life and mechanical systems. It’s an impactful change to vehicle maintenance.

Water utilities are experiencing a similar evolution in maintenance with the transition from direct read mechanical meters to digital encoders and static meters connected over radio frequency (RF) networks to software systems, particularly in commercial and industrial (C&I) uses. The industry is moving toward smarter, interconnected infrastructure.

As such, the concept of meter maintenance takes on a whole new meaning as the industry takes advantage of these technological advancements.

Many Moving Parts

Electrical vehicles are not all silicon and wires; they are a marriage of digital and mechanical systems. Most water distribution systems are the same. In the same way that electric vehicles do not require oil changes, digital meters and communications systems require a different kind of maintenance. Analytics-based maintenance programs can be used to prioritize mechanical meter testing to ensure time and effort from your operations team is spent well.

Traditional meter maintenance programs for mechanical C&I meters require testing on an annual or bi-annual basis. Technicians take a large sample of meters from the field and inspect and test them to ensure they’re still performing correctly. This process typically involves sampling based on meter age. Only six-to-ten percent of meters identified with typical age-based testing programs ultimately are under registering and need repair or replacement. In contrast, 40 percent or more of the meters identified for testing using analytics-based software are in need of repair or replacement, accelerating the rate of revenue recapture by four to seven times.

Mechanical meters have been used for a century to provide accurate billing, but the desire to improve accuracy over the life of the meter and reduce maintenance requirements drives many utilities to migrate toward solid-state, static meters. The static meters and digital encoders in conjunction with a smart utility network allow the utility to obtain meter and system operation data digitally over an advanced communication network. While this provides benefits like operational efficiency and enhanced leak detection, it also means maintenance priorities must shift to accommodate the digital transition.

Revenue comes down to accurately measuring the volume of water pumped with the amount billed to the customer. Utilities could lose thousands of dollars in non-revenue water each month if measurements are off by just a fraction.

The Skinny on Static Meters

Static C&I meters provide a stark contrast from their mechanical predecessors in terms of both components and capabilities. They lack moving parts and therefore are not as susceptible to degradation or breakdown. Because of this, static meters can maintain the same level of accuracy long-term, don’t require traditional meter testing and generally need less frequent repair or replacement.

In addition to ease of maintenance, static C&I meters have grown in adoption because they allow utilities to get more sophisticated in how they measure water flow and ensure billing accuracy as well as provide other critical data about the distribution system and water quality.

These advancements may seem granular on the surface, but consider how many millions of gallons of water a large industrial customer might use in a month. Revenue comes down to accurately measuring the volume of water pumped with the amount billed to the customer. Utilities could lose thousands of dollars in non-revenue water each month if measurements are off by just a fraction.

The ability to secure lost revenue and better account for resources is a major driver of static metering solutions. The shift also comes at a time when goals in sustainability and water loss reduction are increasing along with government guidelines for conservation. This is why, for many utilities, the move to static meters coincides with their transition to smart network infrastructure to better obtain and make use of data.

Digital Systems = Digital Maintenance

While traditional meter maintenance might not be a top priority in the transition to smart network technology, there are several things to keep in mind to make it successful. First, teams must ensure they correctly program and configure their network-connected meters. No utility wants to have their good work overshadowed by a customer mistakenly receiving a $50,000 water bill.

Maintenance programs take on a different look and feel as utilities roll out and build onto their system. Technicians can ensure their system works efficiently and tracks data accurately by routinely taking these measures:

  • Ensure units of measure and reading resolution are accurate. Meter data management (MDM) software and billing systems can help pinpoint potential errors.
  • Confirm meter identifiers and customer account numbers are properly linked and unique. Managing thousands of accounts and meters remotely is impossible with bad data.
  • Clean up the geolocation data of assets during deployment and maintenance tasks. This ensures teams can locate equipment and that it corresponds to customer or asset management data.
  • Conduct ongoing inspections for components connected to the meters. Base stations and radios should be monitored routinely to ensure they’re operational and reporting data accurately and timely.

Utilities may want to explore the option of Managed Services offered by their technology provider to stay current with firmware updates and security certificates. In this scenario, system experts help monitor, manage and maintain the smart utility network on behalf of the utility. This ensures the water provider has full network coverage and peak performance of operations.

network-connected meters

In the transition to smart networks, utilities must be careful to ensure network-connected meters are programmed and configured correctly during installation. For example, when testing a Sensus OMNI meter with the OMNI Verification (V²) portable test meter, pictured here, you can electronically connect both meters to the software and automate the data side of testing.

Building Resiliency

Software has come a long way in guiding utilities through the installation process for smart network systems. It also improves the consistency of meter maintenance. With the right applications, utilities can turn the maintenance process from reactive to proactive and be more intentional with their time in the field.

On the front end, this requires utilities to consider ease-of-maintenance as a priority in the meter and communication selection process. Large commercial accounts need greater application flexibility, data storage, configurable alarms, and communication options.

The ability to capture data-driven insights allows utilities to monitor information on historical usage and billing to identify important trends. Utilities can better pinpoint areas where revenue loss may be occurring due to sources such as decay, wear or water quality. This helps teams be strategic with their meter maintenance and replacement efforts while economically justifying every truck roll.

Driving Forward

As it is with EVs in the automotive industry, innovation continues to move the needle with smart metering technology in the water industry. Utilities are just now scratching the surface of what’s possible with near real-time data at their fingertips. Advancement will continue to touch every aspect of operations — including system maintenance. Adopting a data-based approach is key to delivering the value these integrated systems and products have to offer.

James Smith is the director of global commercial and industrial water metrology for Sensus, a Xylem brand. He has nearly 20 years of experience in both the water and energy industries and is a contributor and chapter author of AWWA M6 and M22 manuals.

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