Cracked water mains can lead to water damage in basements. AMI water meter customers who register their accounts will receive online alerts if their water use exceeds typical amounts. (Photo Courtesy Harris Water Main & Sewer Contractors, Inc.)
Alerts offer peace of mind and timely warnings
When would the soothing sounds of a waterfall cause alarm? When you hear cascading water running from the second floor to the ground level of your home. That’s what one couple discovered upon returning to their residence. They were only gone for four hours, but devastating damage awaited them, including hundreds of gallons of unwanted and wasted water.
For communities that have them, Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) water meter systems allow utilities to notify users when there’s abnormal water flow. Alerts won’t prevent disasters, but they can help users mitigate their property loss and costs of wasted water.
Madison Moves to AMI Meters
In 2012, the City of Madison (Wisconsin) Water Utility upgraded to AMI technology. Previously, technicians read every meter, and the utility sent out invoices every six months. The mechanical system became obsolete, and it was difficult to obtain parts. Now, with smart water meters, customers receive a monthly bill that encourages them to track their monthly, daily and even hourly water usage online.
The AMI system cost about $14 million. The utility predicts a six-year payback for installation of about 64,000 metering systems.
René Puzach, one of three field service analysts for the utility, reviews usage data for a third of the city. As part of her job, she watches for drastic changes in water usage. For example, she spotted a spike at a commercial building that was half vacant. The owner inspected the building and discovered a basement filled with water from a 1,200-gallon leak.
René Puzach, field service analyst, reviews data provided by the AMI Infrastructure water meter system. She looks for unusual water usage that could indicate problems. (Blaize Communications photo by Harold Blaize)
Rick Marx, Madison Water Utility meter operations unit supervisor, said their biggest goal is to give customers data to help them conserve water. Individuals who sign up for an online account can review usage patterns and take appropriate action to control their consumption.
After learning about the benefits of Madison’s Water Utility Customer Care program, I registered for an online account. I’ve established water usage alerts and analyzed my water consumption. In the future, I can determine if my family’s results look typical or if there’s a sudden increase that may indicate a problem, such as a leaking toilet. And now, when we go on trips, I know the utility will send me an alert if our usage suddenly increases. We own cats, and once one of them accidentally turned on the kitchen faucet. If this occurs when we’re gone, it’s good to know I’ll be notified. I could then contact a friend for help or ask the city to turn off our water.
Help Contain Water Rates
The city’s water usage remains flat, despite an increase in the number of buildings. Smart meters are one of the components helping to contain water rates and delay the need to build a new well, a major capital expense. The advanced meters allow the utility to operate their system more efficiently with accurate and timely consumption data. Meter repairs at the utility’s shop also assist with this goal.
The utility recently reported that it pumped just under 9.5 billion gallons of water in 2017, the lowest in 50 years. Madison’s population grew by about 95,000 people during that same period. Per capita usage is now at 55 gallons per day. According to a Wisconsin State Journal article, more efficient appliances and fixtures plus residents’ support of conservation measures have helped lower the city’s water usage.
The Madison Water Utility uses FDM maintenance software to test 20-year-old residential water meters. Rick Marx, Madison Water Utility Meter Operations Unit Supervisor, operates the automated gravimetric bench that holds 12 meters. (Blaize Communications photo by Harold Blaize)
The AMI system is more complex than previous mechanical systems. There’s a growing trend of larger utilities absorbing smaller ones for this reason. In Madison, meter readers who once went door-to-door are now helping to repair water meters. No one lost their job during the City’s transition to smart meters. Some residents expressed concerns about potential layoffs, but they didn’t occur.
During the transition to smart meters, some customers did not want to have transmitters inside their homes. For a $50 fee, the City installs the transmitter outside of their residence. A small number of users pushed for continuous on-site meter readings.
Rowlett Upgrades from AMR System
In Rowlett, Texas, the municipality had been using vehicle drive-by meter readings. Gary Lester, revenue manager, reported that the new AMI water meters send data directly to the City, saving operational costs. The $2.7 million project began in November 2016, and by March 2017, 18,000 meters were updated from Automated Meter Readings (AMR) to the AMI system. Because the Sensus meters were compatible, the upgrade only required that the radios be switched. Savings from other delayed or canceled projects funded this endeavor.
Lester learned about the benefits of AMI meters while at his previous position in Plano, Texas. For years, he promoted the switch from Rowlett’s antiquated AMR radios to the more pro-active AMI system that provides a higher level of service. Now citizens who have a malfunctioning irrigation system or other issues will learn about them a lot sooner, saving water and money. Through the AMI Customer Portal, Rowlett is encouraging citizens to sign up and take ownership of their water usage. So far, 600 users have signed up out of 20,000.
Director of Public Works Jason Dailey of the Town of Cranberry, Pennsylvania, agrees with the benefits of AMI meters. The community, which replaced nearly 8,000 analog meters with advanced water meters, researched AMI for years before updating to this system. His community appreciates the real-time data and true monthly billing. Customers also value the smart water meter leak detection.
Data Highlights Other Issues
With more comprehensive data, communities using AMI systems may uncover other related issues. Officials at Arlington, Texas, discovered they had backflow problems when they installed smart meters. As a result, the city implemented new engineering backflow preventer details. These guidelines were expanded to include the installation of backflow preventer assemblies immediately following the water meter to ensure that no water returns to the public water supply. AMI system analysis also may reveal excessive water use in certain neighborhoods that could indicate potential water main or other problems.
As smart meter usage increases, will public involvement increase as well? These systems allow users to track their consumption and set up alerts if they establish online accounts. Many officials indicated that further education would be a priority to explain to customers the benefits of tracking water usage and setting up alerts. Although most users will never return to a waterfall flowing inside of their homes, water consumption tracking may indicate other unknown problems, such as a leaking toilet, a faulty irrigation system or dripping faucet.
Every Drop Counts
Utilities are turning to AMI meter systems to obtain near real-time management of the resource, encourage water conservation and involve the public in the process. They are working with users to promote the message of a sign hanging in the Madison Water Utility shop: “Every Drop Counts.”
Leslie Blaize, Certified Professional Services Marketer and owner of Blaize Communications, specializes in writing about the Architecture/Engineering/Construction industry. See www.blaizecommunications.com.