FutureStructure

Amarillo, Texas, Officials Explore Smart Water Meter Upgrade

Amarillo, Texas, city officials are working to modernize their utility services by adopting an automated advance metering infrastructure with the overarching goal of increasing efficiency and accuracy.

by Douglas Clark, Amarillo Globe-News / December 27, 2018

(TNS) — Amarillo, Texas, city officials are exploring the possibility of adopting an automated advance metering infrastructure to enhance water utility customer service and billing accuracy. St. Anthony, Minnesota-based SL-serco recently completed an automated metering case study specifically crafted for Amarillo, officials said, with the overarching goal of increasing efficiency.

"The city and SL-serco began this project through a very strategic, vision-based discussion surrounding how they would like to operate and serve the community," Jameson Allen, an SL-serco organization consultant, said. "We identified we would like to establish a bridge of trust between the city and its customers. Through that customers will experience enhancements in customer service and quicker responses and the water utility would be more effectively able to spend their resources and establish more equitable billing."

Allen said establishing a fixed network infrastructure would also increase transparency while improving customer engagement and future performance, noting the base of the technology encompasses end points — sending data to the towers.

"And those end points can be controls, sensors, or in the case of this project, we're hoping to attach them to water meters to collect regular consumption data," he said. "This data is sent to collectors, which can collect all sorts of information for the city, pushing the information into a server or a head end system, delivering customer's data so they can better use city resources and understand what they're using. And it equips the city with analytics to better make decisions about the future. It's (a) digital service platform and water is a service on that platform."

City Finance Director Laura Storrs said there are multiple benefits to be derived from a fixed network infrastructure system.

"In the current state we're at, we're more reactive to things — to questions that come in, to concerns there might be a leak on a property," she said. "A system and technology like this helps us to be proactive and provide the customer with information to get something resolved faster and more efficiently. Also, as customers have more real-time information, they can make better decisions about their water consumption. We all know water is (a) precious resource and we can empower our customers to take hold of their information and work with it."

As it relates to billing, Storrs said with multiple (meter) readings coming in, the city would have the ability to ensure accurate readings each time with every bill — acknowledging there are instances where inclement weather impacts the process of going out and reading meters.

"The system sends out radio frequencies that allow bills to be sent out every month and calculated each time correctly," she said, adding the overall cost for such an endeavor that includes infrastructure, towers, software and meters is just under $30 million, with the up front cost being replacement of all water meters within the city limits and areas the city serves as water customers. "This covers everything to get us running. The other thing to keep in mind is the number they (SL-serco) provided us should be the overall amount if we don't find ways to utilize partnerships within the community. We would approach the Texas Water Development Board and apply for financing at very low interest rates. Other communities have been approved for projects like this. Resolution to submit an application."

Officials said the next steps involve the city council granting approval of a resolution to submit a Texas Water Development Board application, possibly next month, followed by another resolution six to nine months later to approve a loan agreement.

"This allows us to address two of the biggest problems we've got," City Manager Jared Miller said with regard to the automated advance metering infrastructure. "And that's lack of modernization, but also a way to address customer service and customer confidence challenges in the water utility. It's a huge bang for the buck. The billing will be more accurate."

©2018 Amarillo Globe-News, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.