Room for Growth

Joe BallAs 2014 draws to a close, we?ve seen another year of technological development and implementation in the municipal water/wastewater sector. As the industry continues to make use of software tools for monitoring water use, detecting leaks and using the information to make the best management decisions, it?s worthwhile to examine the evolution of the technology, and how specific enhancements in both the design and user interface have helped water utilities apply it.

UIM recently caught up with Joe Ball, director of marketing for Water North America with Itron, Inc. We spoke with Ball about the North American water market?s challenges, drivers, wants and needs as well as how the industry is helping address utilities? challenges with current smart metering solutions. ?
Can you give us some background on yourself? Briefly, when/how did you first get involved in the water industry?

I have been with Itron since March 2003 by the way of an acquisition. I worked as part of Itron?s international group from 2004 through 2010. In this role, I worked with our electric, gas and water customers and had the pleasure of working with water customers in Australia, Ireland, The Netherlands, Qatar and the United Kingdom. From 2010 to March 2014, my focus changed to North America electric customers and Itron?s global strategic alliance partners. I joined the North American water team in March 2014.? For the last eight months, I have been fully focused our North American water solutions and on the North American water market?s challenges, drivers, wants and needs as well as how we can help address utilities? challenges with our current solutions and where to we take solutions in the future.??

At that time, what was the market like for smart metering in the water utility industry?

In 2006 and 2007, when I worked with Itron?s international team, the range of interest was very broad. In countries like Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom, the focus was on metering residential and small commercial customers that had previously gone unmetered. Australia and parts of the U.K. were interested in mobile and handheld automated meter reading (AMR) to increase the frequency of reads, billing accuracy and customer satisfaction. The Netherlands and Qatar were interested in skipping mobile and handheld AMR and going directly to fixed network and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) with similar goals of increasing read frequency, billing accuracy and improved customer service.? However, in the AMR and AMI markets, we were starting the conversation about data and information. My assessment is that at the time, North America was in a similar situation but with a few years head start, meaning than there were many utilities looking at AMR, many already utilizing AMR, several looking at AMI and few using AMI/fixed networks.?

From your perspective, how has the market evolved? Is there a greater demand today for water utilities to convert to an AMI system??

From what I have heard and seen, I believe a large majority of water utilities recognize AMI is necessary to better manage their water distribution systems. Not only that, but they are looking beyond the ?meter-to-cash? process of automation to advanced capabilities like analytics and additional ways to leverage the AMI network. That said, a large majority of utilities are taking a thoughtful approach to AMI by getting educated, developing business cases, running pilots, looking at the options available and preparing for the future.?

In UIM, we often address the evolution of technology in the industry, and AMR/AMI is one piece of technology that has really benefited utilities? decision making process. Can you point to any new capabilities in the technology that has further impacted utility decision making?

Early water AMR and AMI projects mainly viewed the new technology as a tool for reading meters, but didn?t focus much on added benefits beyond basic meter reading. While the industry has seen significant developments in distribution network reliability, edge processing power and installation methodology, Itron believes the most profound impact has come from the utilities? discovery of the value of the data collected for uses beyond billing their customers.?The development of analytic applications and tools to turn large data sets into actionable intelligence has been a game changer for water AMI. Itron believes the success stories related to increased customer satisfaction, operational improvements and cost savings have resonated with utilities that are struggling with similar challenges. These early successes are demonstrating water AMI?s value which is driving innovation and increasing its application.

Converting to a fixed network AMI system is a big investment for a municipality. Are larger utilities more likely to implement AMI? What is the market like for smaller municipalities?

At Itron, we believe an AMI system is the first phase of the evolution to the water utility of the future. Converting to an AMI system requires a dollar and resource investment, but we feel the maturity of cloud and managed service AMI offerings available today enable both large and small utilities to cost-effectively pilot and fully deploy an AMI system. The savings and benefits from efficiencies and actionable intelligence gained from an AMI system for utility operations more than justify and fund a cloud or on-premise AMI deployment.??

If you could narrow it down, what would you say are the most important considerations for water utilities looking to implement AMR/AMI? What do utilities managers need to know?

The most important fact all utility managers should know is that the AMI system will benefit the entire utility. The utility manager should work with the stakeholders within his or her utility to determine if the other planned projects could be combined or added to the AMI project by using the AMI network, leveraging field deployment resources and accelerating asset maintenance or replacement. The added benefits to the AMI project typically broaden the utility?s business case, increasing ROI and decreasing the payback period. The whole utility will win with a successful AMI deployment. Some examples of the benefits include operational efficiencies for the meter reading and field services departments, access to more detailed customer usage information for customer service representatives and planning departments, analytics utilizing interval consumption data, event and tamper alerts creating actionable intelligence. My advice is to think beyond the meter-to-cash process when creating the goals and objectives of your AMI project.

According to a recent report by market analysis firm MicroMarket Monitor, the AMI market is estimated to grow from $15.89 billion from 2013 to $28.45 billion by 2018. What do you think are reasons for this growth?

I will make a general comment about what we are seeing related to water AMI. We are seeing the combination between early AMR adopters looking for system replacements and manual meter-to-cash utilities looking to skip AMR and move directly to AMI. This combination has me very excited about the opportunities in the market.?

In addition to electric and gas, smart metering seems to have a steady if not growing presence in the water utility industry, and there are a lot of big players, Itron being one. How has a company such as Itron been able to maintain growth?

According to the IHS World Markets for Water Meters report, Itron is the market leader for water communication modules in North America. Itron is committed to developing and delivering innovative, high-quality solutions that meet our customers? needs. From improving operational efficiency and decreasing costs to providing insights into consumption and forecasting demand, our solutions help utilities better manage water resources.

What do you see for the future of AMR/AMI in the water sector in terms of demand, technological advancements, etc.?

We are hearing a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities, which is really about connecting as many devices and applications to the internet as possible, increasing the amount of data we have access to and then? learning from that data to more efficiently manage water and energy. We are seeing more advancement in networking technology, battery technology and edge computing power. These improvements will enable utilities to collect more data about their distribution networks, field assets and customers, which they can analyze to ultimately manage their business more effectively.

Joe Ball is director of marketing for Water North America with Itron.

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