The needs of water utilities are evolving rapidly. Whether water conservation is a primary driver or minimizing non-revenue water is the goal, utilities need fast, accurate water usage data in order to better manage their operations. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and meter data management systems provide the solution to these objectives and, as a result, interest in and installations of these systems are rapidly increasing.
Implementing an AMI fixed network system and analytics platform can, however, cause additional challenges and concerns. Namely, how does the utility manage the maintenance of a communications network, does it have the IT resources to manage another software platform and how rapidly will communications technology implemented today become obsolete?
Increased visibility of water usage
The benefits of advanced metering analytics systems, including powerful analytics software and fixed network communications technology, are clear. These systems enable utilities to use their meter data as much more than just a cash register by providing greater visibility into how much water is being used, by which customers and when. This allows for better and faster leak detection, easier management of conservation programs, easier collection of data for compliance reporting and minimization of lost revenue.
A robust analytics package puts data at the fingertips of utility managers through customizable dashboards for more proactive decision making. Further, today’s systems allow the utility to set alerts that help monitor potential problems and help determine when to roll a truck and when not to, in turn optimizing staff time and saving money.
Providing enhanced customer service
In our increasingly on-demand world, the services water utilities provide are continually being measured against the rapid and transparent services offered by online retailers, like Amazon.com, and online banking platforms. If and when customers dispute their water bills, the speed and ease with which utilities can address and resolve their customers’ questions will directly affect satisfaction levels, and the real staff costs involved in the time it takes to address the dispute. The best analytics systems put data at the fingertips of the utility employees who need it. They also allow for easy customer communication, through tools that show, for example, water usage by the hour, correlation of precipitation and average temperature, and a chart that shows the customer exactly when their usage spiked.
Customers are also beginning to ask their utility for greater direct access to their water usage data. This is being driven by corporate water customers, aiming to decrease their costs and market their sustainability initiatives. It’s also being driven by conservation-minded residential customers, who want to know they are doing all they can to reduce their use of precious natural resources. Consumer engagement tools that provide data the way customers want to access it (e.g. PC, smartphone apps and tablets) give the customer greater visibility over their own water usage, putting them in a position to directly manage consumption.
Utility managers often note that they know how to manage water distribution. If it’s in a pit or a basement they are very comfortable with water metering. Advanced metering analytics introduces a host of other considerations for the utility, management of fixed network communications infrastructure being high on the list. Now the utility has to figure out, for example, how best to install and maintain gateway data collectors, potentially requiring working on towers and the tops of buildings.
Utilities can now select partners that provide these systems in a managed solution package. These arrangements allow utility managers to focus on what they do best, delivering high quality water to their customers, without worrying about climbing a tower to maintain a gateway. The AMI supplier becomes responsible for managing and maintaining gateways, software, etc.
New cellular options
Advances in endpoint technology now make communications infrastructure even easier within a managed solution. New cellular endpoints now exist that provide the utility with the potential to reduce the number of utility-owned gateways, or even eliminate them altogether. Once available only for electric meter services, new cellular water endpoints allow for quick deployment of targeted implementations, such as a major C&I customer, for example, or full scale roll-outs. Using cellular networks is safe and secure. Often following a natural disaster, cellular networks prove very disaster resilient or, because they are required by emergency personnel, these are the first systems restored.
In some cases, the most cost-effective fixed network solution will be a utility-owned fixed network. Water cellular endpoints, however, provide a new opportunity to minimize communications infrastructure and build the best, most cost-effective AMI solution for the utility.
Rapidly advancing communications and software technology can make managers nervous about facing an obsolete system much sooner than the traditional 20 years they require. This concern isn’t unfounded. One only needs to look at how rapidly cellphones have advanced in the last 20 years, going from clunky bag phones to today’s smartphones. Solutions providers can and should protect utilities’ investments in two ways: First, through offering hosted, cloud-based analytics software platforms and second, through managed communications upgrade programs.
Host software programs free the utility from owning and maintaining dedicated servers, and allow the utility to benefit from constant enhancements without additional costs. These enhancements let the utility stay up to date with the latest software advancements. The platforms are hosted off-premises in huge, secure and disaster resistant data centers. With a utility hosted analytics system, a power outage at the utility site could have a major impact on availability and accessibility of metering data. With a hosted system, nothing is lost.
The cell phone technology example can also cause a very real concern for utility managers when looking to purchase an advanced metering analytics solution. Advancements are continually being made to improve performance and add additional functionality to endpoint and gateway technology. Utilities should partner with a technology provider that will have built-in programs that ensure their communications network will not become obsolete and will continue to advance over the 20 year expected life of the system.
The future is here
Advances in AMI and analytics solutions mean that water utilities now can enjoy all of the promised benefits of advanced metering analytics systems, without the operational and technology concerns that have traditionally been part of implementing a system. These advancements will help provide greater visibility of water usage and better management of the utility’s water system, while also providing better and better service to its customers over the long-term. In addition, available solutions will help utility managers ensure that the decisions they make now will continue to pay dividends over the long-term.
John Fillinger is director of utility marketing at Badger Meter and has nearly 20 years of experience in the water industry. Throughout his career with Badger Meter, he has assumed roles in technical support, training and marketing. For many years, Fillinger managed the release and ongoing product support of the ORION® Automatic Meter Reading system for water utilities. As a result, he has gained thorough product and application knowledge — and a unique perspective regarding the needs of stakeholders. In his current role, Fillinger directs the company’s utility marketing efforts and the new release of BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA). John can be contacted at [email protected] or 414-371-5872.