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Real-Time Water Monitoring Pilot Takes Shape in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Some municipal water customers are getting access to a new tool that allows them to track their water usage in real time.

by Jessica A. York, Santa Cruz Sentinel / March 27, 2018
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(TNS) — SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Santa Cruz property owners with separate water irrigation lines will be among the first to test a new city real-time metering program.

In recent months, the utility has swept though its active irrigation customer accounts, ranging from Santa Cruz Memorial Park cemetery and Santa Cruz City Schools’ playing field, to city-owned park grounds, installing a new device in water meter boxes. This month, those customers began receiving notices how to log on to monitor their water use in real-time and receive leak notifications by text or email.

The Water Department has had “drive-by radio” automatic meter reading technology in place for the past 20 years, but until the pilot program, readings were taken just once a month and were “very reactive.” So-called advanced metering systems, in this case Badger Meter’s Orion Cellular LTE Endpoint, send utilities hourly water usage readings once a day. The information travels in short bursts using technology similar to a text, via existing cellular lines, said city Customer Service Manager Kyle Petersen.

The “immensely powerful” bonus, Petersen said, is the leak alert.

“Our customers have told us for a long time that it’s pretty frustrating to get a utility bill that’s potentially 45 days after the fact of something happening,” Petersen said. “Not only is the utility bill high, but there could have been damage occurring while that leak was going on, say under the home.”

Santa Cruz’s current residential water billing system, enacted in October 2016, shifts a higher burden of water costs to customers using greater amounts of water, meaning ability to track daily water usage could result in real-time savings. However, water customers whose meters have aged to the point of slowing down may see one negative side effect of the meter retrofits, officials said. As the meters are replaced and water usage more accurately recorded, users’ bills may go up.

About 350 active accounts were chosen for the $76,000 pilot program. For about 70 percent of the accounts, city crews replaced aging existing water meters while adding new technology inside meter boxes, City Water Conservation Manager Toby Goddard said.

Goddard said the city sets customized “water budgets” for its irrigation account customers, who are typically large scale water users. Water use costs escalate for accounts as they go above the budgets. Landscape irrigation water rates differ across the board, based on size of meter and amount of usage, and whether the property is within the city or outside of it. For example, a customer with a typical 5/8-inch meter inside the city would pay a monthly $10.53, plus $10.58 per 748 gallons of water used, as long as they stayed within their water budget plan.

“This is a tool to help drive people back into their budgets, and I think it’s important that we offer solutions like this when we’re asking rate payers to pay these type of rates,” Goddard said. “We need to offer people solutions that will help them manage their usage.”

The pilot program will help to inform how and when the city rolls out a similar program for all 28,000 customers, as late as 2021. The city is using the pilot period to gauge community interest in self-monitoring water usage data and responding to problems such as leaks before feeling the pain when the bill arrives in the mail.

Customer care representatives also will need to learn to handle processing exponentially larger amounts of data, Petersen said. By year’s end, when the pilot concludes, the city will hire a consultant to conduct a cost-benefit analysis and do an internal assessment of the new technology’s fit for Santa Cruz. The city’s capital improvement program projects that a full-sized version of the program will cost about $8 million, spread over two years, Petersen said.

UC Santa Cruz installed the same technology on 400 campus meters in 2015.

©2018 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.