Where Is Your Utility on the Smart Water Continuum?

City Illustration

Smart Cities Start with Smart Water

So, Where Is Your Utility on the Smart Water Continuum?

By Dave Hanes

What is a smart city?

According to Jesse Berst, founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council, a coalition of organizations that seeks to accelerate the move to smart cities, “It’s just using digital technology to improve community life.”

According to the council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide, in simplest terms, there are three parts to that job: collecting, communicating and “crunching.” First, a smart city collects information about itself through sensors, other devices and existing systems. Next, it communicates that data using wired or wireless networks. Third, it crunches, or analyzes, that data to understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen next, according to the guide.

Water Utility Under PressureWhy Start with Smart Water?

There are several reasons that a municipality might look first at its water system when considering its smart city strategy.

First, water is a critical, if often overlooked, aspect of community sustainability. And water systems are currently under tremendous pressure – pressures due to growing expectations and shrinking resources. The graphic to the right identifies a few of these challenges.

Secondly, metering systems already meet the definition of “smart” in that they collect, communicate, and crunch data. You’ve likely already invested in making your water system smart – to some extent. Clearly, some systems are smarter than others, but they all reside somewhere on the smart water continuum. The trick is to make sure that your system is offering the level of smarts that your utility needs.

It is helpful to think about technology adoption as a continuum that evolves over time.

AMR – Automatic Meter Reading – A system that uses meter readers who walk or drive through neighborhoods to capture meter readings via radio frequency transmissions from meters that are assigned to meter reading routes. Generally, meter readings are captured on a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly basis using mobile AMR.

AMI – Advanced Metering Infrastructure – A system that employs a network of collectors, permanently mounted throughout the service area to capture meter readings that are transmitted by radio frequency. Generally, hourly meter readings are captured on a daily basis using a fixed network AMI system.

Application Program Interfaces (APIs) are a set of routines, protocols and tools for building software applications. An API specifies how software components should interact. Additionally, APIs are used when programming graphical user interface (GUI) components.

We should also acknowledge that no utility is likely to ever be optimized at every level of its operation. It’s just not economical. The technologies in which we invest are expected to last 10 or 15 years and with technology changing every few months, there’s no way to keep up. You have to pick your battles.

As new needs arise and new technologies become available to address those needs, our expectation of the “optimum” system needs to change accordingly.

Think about a meter reading system in the 1990s for example. The primary expectation of the system was to generate an accurate meter reading so that a quarterly bill could be generated. Today we not only expect accurate readings, but we also expect the ability to identify leaks at 1/10th of a gallon resolution. We expect that hourly usage data can be obtained from each meter to identify usage patterns. We don’t have time to look through tables of data to find issues. We only want data presented to us that’s actionable – in graphs or on maps. And we want to see this information anywhere we are – on our smart devices.

As a guide to help determine your utility’s priorities for technology adoption, you may reference a Maturity Matrix. This matrix will ask you a series of questions to determine your utility’s current and desired states. Knowing where you are, and where you would like to be will help you plot a course to get there.

PyramidCollecting, Communicating and Crunching

Rather than think of Smart Water as a process that starts with collecting and ends with crunching (pyramid), it is more effective to think in terms of a cycle. In a cycle, the information learned from crunching (the data) is then applied to tweaking the collection and communication systems and processes.


It is often said that water meters are the cash registers for the utility. They drive not only revenue from water, but wastewater. And as water and wastewater rates rise,
the importance of meter accuracy grows.Cycle

Our currently available communication infrastructures enable us to transform what used to be a population of meters into a network of sensors. Typical water meters can now provide readings to the nearest 1/10th of a gallon on an hourly basis. They provide leak detection, reverse flow, and tamper indication.


The communication approach is also key to determining how we can create value from the data we collect. Important considerations include the latency and granularity of the data – in other words, how current it is and how often we get it. Consider the difference between monthly readings that are available from a mobile AMR system versus hourly meter readings that can be gathered daily (or more frequently) from a fixed network AMI system. Access to more information, more often drives the value that an AMI system provides to the smart city and its inhabitants.

Some systems offer the ability to migrate from AMR to AMI without the need to change or reprogram the endpoints or pay additional license fees to access their data. These migratable systems offer flexibility and protection against stranded assets that many utilities value.


Digital deluge. Information explosion. Data tsunami. Whatever you call it, the sheer volume of data that is now available is staggering. In the meter reading world, we’ve gone from one billing reading per quarter to one reading per hour – a more than 2,000-fold increase. Adding to the volume of data, our meter reading systems provide enhanced diagnostics such as leak or reverse flow alerts to help assess the condition of the water service.

Fortunately, our ability to store and sift through all of this data has also grown. Data analytics helps us to identify patterns in the data rather than scanning through each line.

In addition, we now have the ability to share and merge data between historically disparate systems. This ability to bridge data siloes has added new-found value for the utility. By using APIs, or application program interfaces, our various programs and databases can be configured to enable them to share and use data as long as a set of agreed-upon formatting and communication rules are followed.

APIs have value for the utility by making it possible (and, in fact, easy) to share information between systems that are provided by different companies. A few examples:

  • By linking data from an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system to an Esri GIS system, information from meters and other sensors can be shown on top of system-wide infrastructure information in an intuitive mapping format.
  • Channeling detailed consumption to systems like Sedaru allow utilities to use this data to develop near real-time hydraulic models and connect field and office staff with up-to-date work order information.
  • Data can be provided to consumption presentment tools such as those provided by Fathom and WaterSmart to enable the consumer to access usage information and configure alerts.


Smart water systems can be the foundation and model for broader smart city approaches. Smart cities (and towns and villages) have long invested in smart infrastructure for their water utilities to effectively collect, communicate and crunch their data. But by understanding where your utility is on the smart system continuum, and where you want to be, you can plot your course to making your water system smarter.

Dave HanesDave Hanes is manager of strategic marketing at Neptune Technology Group. Over a 30-year career with Neptune, he has developed extensive knowledge in metering and advanced metering infrastructure systems. Responsible for the company’s strategic marketing, market intelligence and voice of the customer efforts, Hanes has a deep knowledge of industry participants, market drivers, strategy development, client needs assessment, business case development and preparing and presenting proposed solutions.

Leave a Reply

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