Innovative technologies are opening new doors for water utilities looking to deploy metering automation on a budget.
In today’s water and waste- water industry, water metering technology is important. Recent years have brought many advances in metering that can help water utilities more efficiently measure, monitor and analyze their resources.
As utilities apply technology to their initiatives and improve operations, four key innovations stand out. A managed solution approach plays an integral role in making these technologies accessible, user-friendly and cost-effective.
1. Managed solutions
A study by Zpryme and the Smart Water Summit (2014 U.S. Smart Water Utility Report) surveying 75 U.S. utilities found that the most important technologies for smart water systems include smart meters (cited by 76 percent of respondents), data and analytics (69 percent) and meter data management systems (55 percent). As shown by this study, utilities continue to adopt advanced metering infrastructure and advanced metering analytics for improved, data-driven decision-making.
While this technology evolution can provide great benefits, it has typically presented new operational challenges, especially related to the management of AMI communications infrastructure and analytics software and hardware. Moreover, as documented in the Zpryme study, 56 percent of utilities did not plan to hire new technology personnel in the near future. To address technology skill gaps in these workforces, newer business models and more intuitive technologies are making the step to AMA far easier.
Seeing the need for better customer service, increased analytics reporting and more efficient operations, utilities are turning to end-to-end, managed solutions to help meet their MDM needs. Features of this approach include:
- Built-in infrastructure management services to keep pace with rapid changes in technology
- Hosted cloud-based software suites
- Built-in customer service tools
In a provider-managed, cloud-based system, the solutions provider takes charge of system operation and maintenance beyond the meters and meter communications endpoints. The managed solution model provides a flexible approach that reduces the resources needed to operate and maintain the meter reading system, freeing personnel to support other critical areas of operations. Furthermore, today’s systems allow utilities to set alerts that help monitor potential problems and determine, for example, when to roll a truck and when not to, thus optimizing staff time and saving money.
2. Cloud-based software
Web-based software services (cloud computing) are a key component of many managed solution models. Known for convenience and efficiency, cloud platforms are being applied globally by nearly all types of organizations, including water utilities. Cloud-based software can bring rapid and diverse changes in how utilities operate and use data. Cloud computing can be a viable alternative to investing in server-based MDM systems. Cloud-based platforms share several characteristics:
- Quick deployment
- Freedom from hardware purchases
- Automatically implemented software updates
- Rapid elasticity or expansion as needs change
- Subscription pricing, providing a pay-as-you-go option
- Expert maintenance of the system, allowing utilities to focus on their core competency
These characteristics allow organizations to build IT resources rapidly, making it easier and less costly to adapt to changing requirements. The software applications are hosted by the solutions vendor in secure data centers. The utility simply uses personal computers to access the software via the internet. Hosting software and data offsite also leaves critical metering data less susceptible to natural disasters.
Historically, MDM systems required software updates and, on occasion, completely new versions. With increased functionality, more users may require access, meaning more licenses to purchase. However, with cloud-based systems, software is automatically updated by the solutions provider, and the costs are included in the base subscription. This means the utility can enjoy the most advanced features without added cost or effort.
3. Cellular metering
Another advance in metering technology is the use of cellular metering endpoints for systemwide communications. The use of cellular technology for AMI isn’t new, but is being used in a new way for water metering.
In the past, cellular was used to communicate small amounts of data within AMI systems, typically requiring gateways to communicate the data back to the hosted environment. Thus, if a utility wanted to deploy a system immediately, it would have to find locations for gateways, get approval to install them, run electricity to them and clear various other hurdles.
Cellular endpoints erase those concerns. Through reliance on existing cellular networks, cellular endpoints can minimize capital investments by reducing or eliminating reliance on traditional network infrastructure. Especially when included as part of a managed solution, cellular endpoints have become a cost-effective and easy way to take advantage of smart metering.
Because of their flexibility, installations using cellular endpoints can efficiently meet almost any application need, from quick deployment of targeted implementations to full-scale roll-outs. Cellular networks are also proven safe and secure. After a natural disaster, cellular networks are typically the first to be restored, especially because emergency services need to use them to coordinate responses.
With cost as a top concern, more utilities will capitalize on the benefits of new cellular technology. In fact, a recent IHS Technology report, Water Meters Report – 2014, forecasted that cellular-enabled water meter shipments would grow rapidly in North America as utilities look to minimize capital investments. In some cases, the most cost-effective solution is a utility-owned fixed network. In others, cellular endpoints help minimize communications infrastructure and enable the best, most cost-effective AMI solution.
4. Proactive consumer communications
Encouraged by an increased focus on customer service and efficiency, consumer engagement websites and smartphone/tablet apps continue to evolve. In today’s on-demand world where consumers track nearly every aspect of their lives, water usage data available at the click of a button has proven appealing for customer-focused utilities looking to save money and resources.
In January 2014, one study estimated that 58 percent of American adults owned a smartphone and that 86 percent of the time spent on smartphones was spent on mobile apps. Seeing an opportunity to communicate pro-actively with customers beyond monthly statements, utilities are expected to explore these platforms. In the Zpryme study, 40 percent of respondents had plans to develop apps for residential and commercial customers. Features typically available through utility apps include:
- Graphics showing recent usage with a comparison against average usage
- Usage trends
- Detailed charting of historical usage
- A leak-alert function
- Recommendations to conserve water, with the ability to set up a customized profile to receive personalized tips and access to a savings calculator
Users can also set up profiles with specific criteria so that they can be alerted if they exceed their allotted monthly usage, or if the system detects a usage spike that could indicate a leak.
Advances in technology mean water utilities can begin to enjoy all the benefits of AMI and AMA without previous operational and technology concerns. With implementation and management barriers removed, utilities can use these advances to provide greater visibility into water usage and better management of the water system, while improving customer service. Most important, today’s solutions ensure that the decisions utilities make now will pay dividends well into the future.
About the Author
Kristie Anderson is the product marketing manager for Badger Meter, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She can be reached at KAnderson@badgermeter.com.