Guest Column | December 19, 2014

Smart Metering Not An All Or Nothing Proposition

By Dan Cerrezuela, Randy Moore, and Ed Hackney

Options for small and mid-sized utilities

Water utilities of all sizes face daunting challenges.  Small utilities face the same challenges as large utilities, but have to do more with less. Not only are utilities under pressure to manage capital costs and reduce operating expenses, they’re also tasked to comply with government initiatives, reduce non-revenue water, and cope with water scarcity. In addition, consumers expect excellent customer service. Smart technologies, particularly smart metering, can help water utilities overcome these challenges.

If you operate a small or mid-sized water utility, there’s a fair chance you haven’t yet made the AMI leap. You may be considering risks such as data security, capital outlay, customer dissatisfaction, etc. So you’ve waited, and non-revenue water has continued to increase, labor costs have risen, and a younger generation of homeowners is wondering why they can adjust their thermostat from a different time zone on their smart phones but can’t quickly find out how much water they’ve used during the last three months.

Perhaps you haven’t made the leap because you thought AMI is an all-or-nothing proposition. Today’s AMI systems, though, come with options that were unavailable just a few years ago. For example, you can partially deploy AMI systems, mixing them with older AMR devices. Partial deployment is an attractive option as part of a trial program to verify the technology and benefits or to manage your capital investments.

You can also deploy along customer segments such as laundromats, car washes, plant nurseries, and other water-intensive businesses. You can deploy for just your largest customers. You can deploy geographically where buildings are older and leaks are more likely to occur. Or you can deploy according to a fixed capital expenditure scheme, for example, upgrading 5 percent to 7 percent of your meters each year. You can also mix systems from different vendors. Not long ago, this option was impossible.

Because AMI is suitable for water as well as electric and gas data reporting, AMI deployment offers opportunities to partner with and share capital and operating expenses with your local gas and electric utilities. Collectors — the devices that receive the wireless data from one area (such as a neighborhood) and forward the data to the utility’s enterprise — can be installed on water towers or other high assets. You can also invest jointly in collection points that can work simultaneously with water, gas, and electric utilities.

An AMI system may benefit a utility financially by increasing revenue and cutting operating costs. Collected revenues may increase because of more accurate meters and ready detection of theft and fraud. Costs are reduced by eliminating meter-reading expenses and reducing the need to “roll a truck” to address customer service requests.

For those who are still unsure if and when to deploy AMI, consider installing transmitters on your meters. Even if you don’t set up collectors now for AMI, you will in a few years. And when you do, you’re going to want to install high-resolution meters, because if you have the ability to read hourly flow rates — or even consumption levels every 15 minutes — you’ll have a meter that can give you that level of precision.

AMI is the future, and new deployment options are available for any utility size. The benefits and cost savings for AMR and AMI are proven. It’s time to figure out how to get from where you are now to where you want to be in the coming decades.

Dan Cerrezuela and Randy Moore are with Utility Service Group. Ed Hackney is with United Water.  All collaborators are part of the SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT Group, a global leader dedicated exclusively to the management of water and waste resources. The SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT Group is committed to equipping 20 percent of its global network on five continents with smart meters by 2016.