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Are IoT-Enabled Smart Meters the Next Step for Utility Providers?

Modern smart water meters can relay real-time water-use data to both the water utility and customers, leading to improved conservation and quicker leak repairs.

Water utilities have begun eyeing cellphone towers and even cable TV providers as possible transmitting sources for the millions of daily water meter readings they receive with "smart meters." 
Think of this as the latest development in smart meter technology; devices that electronically measure not only water consumption, but also offer reams of data related to when that water was used — or even wasted through leaks or other inefficiencies.
“The concept of utilizing existing networks that are out there has been around for decades, but nobody was able to make it work until the last few years,” said Thomas Kelly, strategic coordinator for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, a water-provider for a 1,000-square-mile region in Maryland. Kelly also chairs the American Water Works Association Meter Standards Committee.
Connecting the IoT-enabled water meters to the cellphone system is perhaps one of the more significant trends to emerge in the water delivery industry, said John Fillinger, director of utility marketing for Badger Meter, a maker of smart water meters and related technologies.
“Cities are not in a position to be able to own infrastructure. All of these things sound good. But you need a network in order to be able to have that communication take place,” said Fillinger. “So our approach to that demand in the market has been, the cellular networks are there already. Why not utilize the cellular network, which now removes the city, removes the water utility, from having to own, operate, maintain, pay for infrastructure that would be required to fulfill those goals?
“The capability is there. They can start with one unit if that’s all they want to do,” Fillinger added. “Or they can scale it up and do the whole city. It gives them more flexibility in that they now have the key in the ability to do what’s right in any part of the town. Because what’s good for one area might not be what’s best for another area.”
Kelly agreed, saying the benefits of using the cellular network to transmit data, rather than having the utility build out its own communications infrastructure, starts to make even more sense in rural areas.
“Now you can make use of the existing system that’s out there — you’re going to have to pay a fee — but I have to think that that is infinitely less expensive than establishing your own (communication) system,” he explained.
Though not everyone seems ready to immediately jump onto the cellular bandwagon. 
The Houston Public Works and Engineering Department, which uses Badger Meters, along with other technologies, has about 500,000 water customers. Only a few of those meters are connected to the cellular system. Most meters are connected as part of a “fixed network system,” where meter-reading data is transmitted across the city’s broadband network into servers in the water department.
Still other meters collect the water use data, and it is then transmitted “by a van drive-by that picks up those readings,” explained Matthew Thomas, assistant director of meter operations within the customer account services sector at the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department.
For Houston’s purposes, a fully cellular-based water-meter system may not be entirely ideal, said Thomas, when taking into consideration cost, life expectancy of equipment and other factors.
“From our initial evaluations, we’ve seen that the life expectancy of the [existing cellular] technology [automatic meter reading and advanced meter infrastructure] is not as long as other available technology,” he added.
Nearly all of Houston’s water meters already have connected devices that allow the meters to be read remotely. “Which is a significant savings to the city. It eliminates the man-power and vehicle cost to physically read those meters,” said Thomas, adding Houston is planning to transition its older automatic meter-reading equipment to newer technology in the coming years as it reaches the end of its 20-year lifecycle. The new meters will allow Houston to explore other smart city projects around areas like wastewater and flood control.
Customers will have the ability to sign up for notifications, alerting them almost immediately of swings in usage — almost a sure sign of leak.
“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity with the technology, from water conservation, reducing the amount of water lost, and being able to identify all of those things more easily would be supported by this technology,” said Thomas.
The water utility in Long Beach, Calif., just concluded a two-year pilot that deployed about 200 of the company's smart water meters. The city’s water department will begin a rollout to transition this city of about 500,000 residents to smart meters to take advantage of new technologies.
The pilot program connected those 200 meters — a relatively small number when considering the thousands of customers the water-provider serves — to the local cellular system, said Dean Wang, a water conservation specialist at the Long Beach Water Department.
“We paid essentially for a data subscription per meter,” said Wang. “That was a good solution for small rollout due to the low upfront investment cost required to get up and running."
“However, for the full service areawide deployment, we are looking into having our own dedicated fixed network infrastructure because in the long term, it would be more cost effective for us based on how many meters we have and how dense our city is,” he added.
Reducing water loss, known in industry-speak as “non-revenue water,” is a perennial concern among water utilities. This is water that is lost due to leaks, water meter inefficiencies and other problems, causing it to somehow not get metered and charged for. And actually charging for all of the water going through the system is reason enough for water utilities to switch to smart metering, say both water utility officials and equipment providers in the private sector.
“These meters will monitor it,” Kelly said of the smart water meter, and its ability to keep a much closer eye on individual water use. “And if you don’t have a period of time with no usage, the meter will give you a signal, ‘hey, there’s a leak here.’”
The newer meters — and the tsunami of data they transmit — are making it easier for utilities to predict usage and demand, which then aids in setting water rates, said Kelly. 
But beyond the strategic planning smart meters enable, their improved accuracy and access to previously unrealized analytics have moved water conservation into its rightful place as more areas of the country take water management more seriously. 
“Within the last decade, water has really come into its own as getting the recognition that it deserves for the precious resource that it is,” Kelly elaborated. “Traditionally, water had a back seat to electric and gas … but that’s not the case anymore.
“We have more and more people putting increasing demands on the same amount of water,” he added. “And what we’ve got is what we’ve got.” 
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.