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Gwinnett County, Ga., Officials Hope Smart Water Meter Pilot Can Help Other Utilities

By deploying smart meters at 500 homes in the coming months, the county is looking to get a more granular read on water usage and provide consumers with more detailed information on their own consumption.

by / August 18, 2017

Officials in north central Georgia's Gwinnett County say they don’t have a problem with water leaks today. No one knows what tomorrow will bring, though, and so they want to be ready.

With a smart meter pilot now underway, they are looking to get a more granular read on water usage, while also providing consumers with more detailed information on their own consumption patterns.

“We recognize that this technology is becoming more widespread and that customers will be expecting this ability to manage their water, by seeing more frequent data than the monthly data they see now,” said the county’s project manager Steve Seachrist. “It’s really an enhancement to our service.”

The county is deploying smart meters at approximately 500 homes, including 450 Neptune meters and 50 advanced Capstone meters.

The Neptune ultrasonic meter can register a low rate of flow, just 5/100ths of a gallon per meter. At this level of sensitivity, “it will measure tampering, if someone tries to move a meter, as well as detecting leaks on the customer side,” Ken Thompson, a senior fellow technologist with Colorado-based CH2M Hill Engineers, which is helping to manage the project.

“It will also register if water starts to flow backward on the customer side. If there is a pipeline break in the system a meter will reverse flow because there is a loss in pressure, so if we see clusters of meters showing this backflow problem, that could show us a local break in near real time,” he said. “That speed is critical. The quicker you can identify a pipeline break and shut the water down and try to fix it, the less damage it is going to do.”

The more sophisticated Capstone meters also register changes in pressure and temperature. “That allows us to get a more complete profile of how the system is changing within this area,” Thompson said. “That’s important from a service perspective: We want customers to have a nice steady pressure level. Also if pressure starts to drop that may signify a pipeline break, or it could mean that someone is on the system trying to steal water.”

The advanced meter has another advantage over conventional models. Unlike traditional meters, which run on 10-year batteries, the Capstone powers itself off an internal turbine, and is thus constantly recharging. Industry analysts say this is a significant consideration. Because water metering is rarely located within convenient reach of a main power supply, “smart water meters are dependent on a reliable and long-lasting battery to power data transmission,” they note.

With a population of almost 900,000 individuals, Gwinnett County does not have a big problem with leaks, averaging only about a 10 percent water loss rate annually. But county planners look at the worldwide average of about 30 percent, and they see some counties where water loss can go as high as 70 percent. They say their smart meter project could help some of those places do a better job.

“We can develop this new capability and share that information with other utilities,” Seachrist said. “Maybe we could help other systems to address those needs.”

The new meters also will help the county to keep a firm grip on the tiller when it comes to water usage as circumstances change over time. “To be a good water steward you have to be sure of where you stand. You need to track it continuously. We could always have a change that increases our leakage, and we want to know about that,” Seachrist said.

It takes some finesse to roll out a 500-home prototype of a smart meter system. Planners did a careful search to identify the right set of homes for the trial. They needed houses close to the central office, in case the meters need servicing. They also wanted homes that incorporate a range of different pipe materials in order to get a wide read on the meters’ abilities.

The greatest challenge involves the installation of a master meter vault. Planners need access to an 8-inch pipe but they also need room to work: With equipment and added piping, the vault occupies a 10-by-12 foot space. “You don’t want to be bumping into other utilities, and you can’t be in someone’s front yard,” Seachrist said.

In this case fortune smiled on the project’s planners. “There happened to be a vacant lot close to the feed location, with no underground utilities. That was a lucky find,” Seachrist said.

The county started deploying the new meters this spring, and while they hope to see a significant uptick in the quantity of information coming off the system, they do not anticipate having to put additional hands to the task of monitoring that new information.

“It will be an automated system with algorithm and software applications to process the data in real time,” Thompson said. “Then it will provide alerts when something is happening. The idea is not to have someone sitting there watching the screen — that is just not feasible with this amount of data. So we will be using big data analytics to do that processing.”

In the initial phase of the project, data will be consumed only by the county. While the long-term intent is to make the information available to consumers, planners say they want to tackle the data themselves first in order to get a handle on the kinds of information the meters can provide, and in what form.

“Part of the reason for doing the pilot is to understand the value of the data and how the customers could benefit from it,” Seachrist said. “We want to look at it first in order to start to understand that.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.