'Poor Man's Fixed Network'

Jan. 1, 2013
Many water utilities have implemented mobile AMR systems but use them simply to take monthly reads for billing purposes. However, by identifying a group of customers, even if it's small, and recording and analyzing usage data several times a month, providers can glean valuable information that can lead to improved customer service and water conservation.
Helps Slow Water Loss

No longer able to afford the payments on their beautiful $700,000 Colorado mountain home, a couple packed up their belongings, discontinued the electric and gas service, and left the neighborhood after the bank foreclosed. Shortly after, a cold front lasting several days hit the community. Freezing temperatures were followed by seasonal highs and then more cold weather.

This graph shows usage data for a single account that was flagged as having a leak. The leak went uncorrected for several days.

A neighbor passing by the property was the first to notice a problem. She alerted the Castle Pines Metropolitan District when she saw a frozen waterfall cascading off the first floor deck down to the walkout basement. The water provider rolled a truck to the residence and shut off the water. But not before 660,000 gallons of water had flowed through the meter, earning the bank a sizeable bill.

The fun didn't end there. Standing water inside the residence created an environment ripe for black mold. It spread throughout the house and couldn't be mitigated. The home was condemned and had to be torn down.

It wasn't the first time one of Castle Pines' customers had experienced a leak that caused substantial property damage. In fact, the problem was fairly common because many homeowners in the community of nearly 1,700 service connections traveled frequently or lived in other areas throughout the year.

Water Conservation

The district's staff members were keen on figuring out how to prevent runaway leaks and over-irrigation. Not only did they want to provide better assistance to their customers, the district had committed to achieving aggressive water conservation goals. These water-wasting problems were having a substantial and negative impact on reaching their objectives.

The district staff were initially hampered by the fact that they only collected meter reads every 30 days using a mobile, "drive-by" Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) system. If a customer experienced a leak on the 10th day of the billing cycle, there was no way for the district to know about it until 20 days later. By that time, hundreds or thousands of gallons of water could be lost.

Intent on tackling the problem, district staff looked to see what other utilities were doing in this area. Some providers had implemented fixed-base, Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems capable of recording daily/hourly meter reads. AMI systems, however, are expensive and take a long time to design and implement. Like other water providers, the district was facing tight budget constraints.

New strategy

The district decided to implement what could be described as a "poor man's fixed network." They began using their mobile AMR system to collect meter reads on a biweekly basis instead of just every 30 days. They analyzed the consumption patterns and were able to identify a variety of problems including:

  • Pipe breaks
  • Inoperable backflow preventers
  • Broken toilets
  • Improperly programmed irrigation clocks
  • Irrigation line leaks

When problems were identified, the district would proactively reach out and notify those accounts. Customers were grateful because, in many cases, they were out of town. What's even more notable is that on several occasions, the residents were in the homes but were unaware of the ongoing leaks.

By decreasing the latency in the feedback loop and proactively communicating to clients, the district was able to accelerate the repair process and substantially reduce wasted water.

District staff also suspected that over-irrigation was pervasive throughout the community. They incorporated landscape area measurements, evapotranspiration (ET) and irrigation requirement (IR) data to determine which accounts could reduce their water usage and still have healthy landscapes. They were able to do this in near real-time during the irrigation season.

Water Savings

The results were astounding. After 11 months, the district was able to:

  • Decrease peak day demand by 25% (effectively reducing capital improvement costs)
  • Prevent the loss of more than 4 million gallons of water (12.45 acre-feet)
  • Save $186,000 in avoided water costs (water acquisition expenses)
  • Enhance the level of service to customers
  • Earn favorable recognition from the community

The program enabled the district to experience firsthand the value of collecting and analyzing data on a more frequent basis. As a result, the district has decided to move forward and implement a fixed-base AMI system. They recognized that even though reducing the latency from 30 days to three or four was a significant improvement, a lot of water could still be lost in that timeframe. To meet their newly adopted service commitments, the district would need to gather data on a daily basis.

But We're a Large Water Utility

The district has presented their poor man's fixed network idea to water providers of all sizes. A frequently heard question is: "We have 10,000 taps and it already takes us nearly 30 days to read all our meters, how does this concept apply to us?"

The district's Water Efficiency Specialist, Emily Coll, answers this by suggesting that water utilities not focus on reading all meters in their service areas biweekly. Instead, she recommends selecting a subgroup of customers who may suffer from recurring leaks or a group of the largest irrigators and commit to gathering and analyzing data every 15 days, every 10 days or every week. The utility will still catch a lot of problems that otherwise would lead to high water losses. Moreover, they'll greatly improve customer service.

The regular habit of evaluating consumption data is valuable to customers and utilities alike, regardless of the frequency.

Unintended Outcome

The district's poor man's fixed network had an unintended but highly beneficial outcome: It helped to change the customers' perception of the water district from an organization that simply sends out bills every month to an organization that is looking out for the best interests of customers and the long-term interests of the community.

During a time when many governmental organizations face increased public scrutiny and community members that are quick to sound an alarm about anything they don't like, this type of program has the ability to build trust and sway public opinion.WW

About the Author: Todd A. Brehe is a Product Manager at AmCoBi and can be reached at: [email protected]. The company provides Web-based customer engagement solutions that help municipal water utilities improve how they communicate and share information with their clients.

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