Agreeing on System Improvements

Columbia Water’s unparalleled metering project benefits both utility and customers.

Agreeing on System Improvements

Foreman Douglas Brooks (right) and operator Torin Martin connect a new Badger smart meter on a residential water service.

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Everything seems to be flowing together in Columbia, South Carolina, where two rivers merge into a third and a transition to a smarter water metering system is moving forward with equal persistence.

“This is the direction the city is moving,” says Frank Eskridge, deputy director of utilities for Columbia Water. “City council leadership, the mayor, the city manager, they all want to leverage technology to improve our service.”

In this case, improvement means better utilization of utility employees, better monitoring of water usage and waste, and better management of water use by utility customers themselves. The trifecta of progress was a long time coming.

Pilot and press

Columbia’s meter story dates back to the 1990s when city officials realized that not doing preventive maintenance on the water meter system had consequences. Many of the manually read meters themselves were failing and accurate usage of water was not being recorded. The city limped along for more than a decade, paying more attention to its meters but not upgrading them to an efficient data collection system.

Finally, in 2012, technology was in the offing for an upgrade. Columbia Water engineer Jason Shaw, who has worked at the utility for almost 15 years, was part of a team that undertook a pilot program to test two modern meter-reading systems.

One was AMR (automated meter reading), in which an endpoint on a meter collects water usage data and a reader collects the data with a handheld receiver while walking or driving by — no having to stop, open a box and read a dial. The other tested system was AMI (advanced metering infrastructure), in which data is collected at the meter and transmitted to central computers through a radio or cellular network. In this system, a meter reader need not visit a meter location at all.

For the pilot program, some 800 meters in adjoining neighborhoods were taken out of service and fitted with the new technology, the AMR in a residential neighborhood and the AMI in the Manning Correctional Institution — a complex of buildings operated by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Employing AMI in the prison seemed like a good idea because meter readers wouldn’t have to set foot on the grounds.

In the end, the fruit of the 2012 pilot program was nil. “We went through a process of evaluating the proposals, without a consultant to help us,” Shaw says. “We spent some $400,000 at that time and liked the technology. It was a learning experience, but there were so many other things going on that we didn’t see a path forward at that time to fund a meter upgrade project.”

Eskridge, who has been with the utility for two years, says the state of technology in 2012 was a factor in the city’s decision to defer the change. Eskridge served in a leadership position in the Greenville, South Carolina, utility department and worked on bringing an AMR drive-by system to that city beginning in 2008. He says the reason Greenville chose AMR over AMI was an upfront investment issue.

“Utilities that wanted to use cellular had to build their own cellular transmission network,” he says. “That’s one reason we went with the drive-by system. But after 2015, the proliferation of cellphone towers began. Cellular now is robust and resilient and redundant.”

After the city spiked the idea of automated meter reading, the growth of the Columbia water system continued — some 2,000-3,000 meters a year — and meters continued to age. Finally, in 2017, Columbia hired international consulting firm Jacobs Engineering to help the city convert to a different system.

“By that time, our average meter age was 14 years. The aging meters were giving an estimated 4% underrecording of water usage,” Shaw says. “In other words, the average customer got a bill that was 4% less than it should have been. Those losses, combined with the age of our meters and the fact we’d never converted to an interim drive-by system, gave us a very strong business case. We decided then was the time to move.”

City leaders were also motivated to do something by bad press. A relative handful of utility customers shared with The State, Columbia’s newspaper, their complaints about errant water billing. The water hit the fan.

“There were some billing customers who made it into the paper,” Eskridge acknowledges. “The problem never was as big as it looked in the paper. It was amplified there and, of course, the city council is very sensitive to the desires of the community. For many reasons, leadership decided it was time to move in the direction of AMI.”

Everybody believes

The utility’s assistant city manager, Clint Shealy, pulled together a team to lead the project, 

with Shaw being project manager. “It has been a collaborative effort,” Shaw says. He works with representatives of the IT, customer service and meter departments. “There are five core people on the city team. Jacobs has four people and Badger Meter has three or four and the meter installers, United Meter Solutions (UMS), has team members. We formed a cohesive team that has managed the project from inception to where we are today.”

A proposal by Badger Meter, out of Milwaukee, was selected over five other bids because it was the only one to offer a cellular system. “We didn’t want to have to maintain a fixed-base radio network, which can be cumbersome,” Shaw says.

In the new system, a meter connected to the network takes readings every 15 minutes. Four times a day, it transmits the collected information through an AT&T cellular network to an Amazon cloud computer in Columbia Water’s data center. There, operators monitor the data and, eventually, monthly bills are produced.

“We get notices when we don’t get a transmission from a meter,” Shaw notes, which can happen when a car has parked over a meter and blocked the flow of data. If someone tries to avoid billing by disconnecting a meter, that sends up an alarm, too.

Deployment of the new Badger meters began in earnest in July 2019 with a 30-person UMS crew installing residential and small-business meters and another couple other technicians installing intermediate and large meters at commercial and institutional locations. As of the middle of November, nearly 80,000 of the 150,000 meters have been fitted in place. The project is on schedule to wrap up in March 2022.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I have been with the type of work that UMS has done in the field,” Eskridge says. “You can have all the right attitudes in the conference room, but if it doesn’t happen outside on the pavement, it doesn’t work. We have an incredibly effective construction team changing out these meters and gathering customer information necessary to convert from manual reading to AMI. Everybody believes in this project and is trying to make it successful.”

The goal was to install a thousand meters a week. As of November, the average installations per month was on target at 4,200. That figure partly reflects early months of the project when installers were working in downtown Columbia where concrete and asphalt slowed placement of new meters. As the crew moved out into residential areas, the pace quickened. In August, for instance, almost 7,400 meters were connected.

Constant growth

Columbia Water deals with more than water metering issues. The capital city it serves dates to colonial times and was established as the state capital in 1786. Its waterlines aren’t quite that old, but the first water mains were constructed in the early 1800s with periodic updates. Shaw estimates that half of the system today is less than 40 years old and the other half is 60 to 70 years old with a few sections going back perhaps a century.

Ductile iron pipe constitutes 80% of the waterlines, with a little cast iron, reinforced concrete and PVC mixed in. Columbia Water has also expanded service outside the city proper — 60% of its waterlines are in surrounding parts of Richland County. In moving into neighboring communities, the utility has acquired some old and nonconforming lines.

Two water plants serve the community, one in Columbia’s older downtown area and the other at Lake Murray. The original downtown plant was constructed in 1906. Two clearwell storage tanks were built and additional pumps installed to serve the plant. All in all, it was a $45 million project. The Lake Murray plant was built in 1983 so it, too, has required regular updates.

The utility also operates the largest wastewater treatment plant in South Carolina, a consequence of the city being built on terrain that allows routing of wastewater to one location. The plant is subject to ever-more stringent requirements and is regularly upgraded. A current capital improvement project will enhance aeration. Columbia Water has 63,000 wastewater customers.

The third component of the utility’s services is stormwater control. That system, too, dates back to the early years of Columbia. Some flood-prone areas — such as Martin Luther King Park in the Five Points business district — are a regular flooding concern.

Massive floods hit the city in 2015 when some 20 inches of rain inundated the central part of the state. Two rivers — the Saluda and Broad — merge in Columbia to form the Congaree River. Consequently, besides local rainfall stressing stormwater infrastructure, the trio of overflowing rivers overwhelmed their banks to produce what was termed a thousand-year flood. “The extreme flooding added credence to the need for an effective stormwater system,” Eskridge says.

So, there is no shortage of places for Columbia to spend money on its water systems. Waterlines are just one focus, but an important one. “Mr. Shaw is very busy developing and administering projects to replace old cast iron water mains that are corroding on the inside,” Eskridge says. “Customers don’t want rust particles in their water. There also are long-range plans for new water distribution lines across the north end of the system for an area of high growth.”

The city is constantly growing, partly because it is fairly immune from economic downturns. Besides state government and the state prison, the city also is home to the University of South Carolina and to Fort Jackson, the largest U.S. Army training facility on the East Coast. Though the fort has its own water distribution system, it buys its water from Columbia. It also sends its wastewater into the city’s collections system.

Demand for water also was boosted by a November announcement that Mark Anthony Brewing will build a $400 million facility in Columbia. The 1 million-square-foot brewery will produce hard seltzer and lemonade products and begin operations in mid-2021. Needless to say, it will be another big water customer for the utility.

Quite a leap

When Columbia Water’s $49 million metering system is completed, it will be a significant milestone. It’s not the first cellular metering system in South Carolina — the Beaufort-Jasper Sewer and Water Authority, which is about a third of Columbia Water’s size, has operated one for years. But Columbia’s will be the largest all-cellular water utility AMI installation in the world, quite a leap for a community whose metering routines were stuck in the 20th century.

The new system isn’t a panacea for an old water system. The aging infrastructure still remains problematic. Leaks of one kind or another contribute to a water-loss rate of about 15%. Shaw places the number of suspected leaks in the system 

at 6,900, per the AMI system utility portal. It is “suspected” leakage because at those points water is moving 24 hours a day, which is unlikely in most controlled situations.

The constant cellular tracking of water usage is helping some customers understand the consequences of a running toilet and other overlooked usage. “We’ve had customers complain about large water bill increases and we’ve checked our data and found they were unwittingly watering their lawns from, say, 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.” Shaw says. “We tell them, you may want to check the timer on your sprinkler. Once they understand it, they say, ‘Oh.’”

He believes the additional information will help both customers and the utility. “I think it’s going to make all of our jobs so much easier. Being able to explain water usage to a user is just so powerful.”

Eskridge concurs. “I can’t overemphasize the benefit of talking to customers who believe they haven’t used the water we believe they have, then getting them on our app and showing them exactly how water was used two Saturday nights ago. When we are sharing the same facts, the path to agreement is much shorter.” 


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