Olea Edge Analytics, based in Austin, Texas, is putting various sensors on old water meters to flag when they’re under-charging and need to be replaced. The results, say the company, can be big.
Even as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approaches 100,000, the pandemic’s next major blow promises to be an economic one. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute, estimates that state budgets will see a 10 percent drop in the current fiscal year and more than 25 percent in fiscal year 2021. As city managers look for ways to trim budgets and add revenue, a company out of Austin, Texas, thinks it has found a new one: water meters.
Olea Edge Analytics will announce this week the latest version of its software and hardware for detecting faulty water meters. As described in a news release, Olea offers to put visual, rotational and vibrational sensors on water meters, so as one sensor reads the meter's dial, another feels the water flow in the pipe and another tracks the meter’s rotation. The sensors are connected to a back-end EdgeWorks software platform with AI and machine-learning algorithms — the “edge computing” component of the system — which in turn ascertains if and how a meter is inaccurate, and how it might be fixed.
The company’s CEO, Dave Mackie, told Government Technology that Olea is focused solely on commercial meters for two reasons: they account for 40-80 percent of the city’s total water revenue, and fixing them won’t take money from private residents who can barely pay their bills as is. He also explained that over-charging for water is less of a concern, because water flow drives the part of the meter that spins, so it’s virtually impossible for a meter to spin faster than the water going through it.
Mackie said some meters can last decades, while others don’t work as soon as they’re put in the ground, and there’s no reliable way to predict when they’ll go bad — not time in the ground, not location, not volume of water flow. He compared Olea’s approach to putting sensors in modern cars: when something stops working, usually sensors will detect it and activate a warning light on the dashboard. The American Water Works Association estimates that 10 percent of meters go bad every year, and Mackie said that can translate to thousands or even millions of dollars lost. He said by fixing or replacing these, cities can see a return on investment in a matter of months.
“We had one meter in Atlanta that was worth $53,000 a month to the city, and it was a $300 fix. So you’ve got an incredibly underserved part of the market, which is using archaic technology, some of which was developed through the '30s and '40s and '50s, and there’s no real way to apply analytics to these things, except by doing what we do, that gives you a view into whether they’re working correctly or not,” Mackie said. “There are millions of gallons a day going through these water meters, and as they fail, the city’s ability to recoup that loss and make repairs that are effective so it works correctly results in an immediate transfer of real-time dollars into the city’s infrastructure.”
Mackie said Olea has had four municipal customers so far: the cities of Austin and Irving in Texas, the city of Atlanta and Gwinnett County, Ga. He said he has three patents so far, four more are pending, and he hasn’t seen any other companies measuring water meters with advanced sensors and analytics. He guessed part of that is because the AI tools and low-powered electronics involved are relatively new technologies. In the near future, he expects to unveil more, including pressure sensors and leak-detection systems. But if state and city budget projections are any indication, such advanced asset management tools are likely to go from novel to necessary in short order.
“What drives it all, and what is our core product for the foreseeable future, is the ability to help cities find revenue in order to pay for infrastructure,” Mackie said. “On average, major cities in the world are going to see a 50 percent increase in population by 2050. If they can’t find a way to true up their water systems so they’re maximizing their revenue while not going into debt and punishing the people who can least afford it, then it’s going to be a really challenging time. We believe we’re solving a greater good because of that.”