Water utilities are good at distributing water. They are not known for their leading-edge IT capabilities or buying into the Internet of Things (IoT) frenzy. Historically, they are conservative organizations that stick to proven practices and are pinned to cash-strapped municipal budgets.
However, pressure to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively–coupled with growing global awareness about water scarcity and conservation–is setting the stage for new, unlikely machine-to-machine partnerships in the area of smart metering.
Currently, hardware-turned-services providers and telecommunications companies and aggregators are teaming up to improve customer service, manage leaks, show detailed consumption levels and increase overall operational efficiency. They are achieving this with cellular-enabled, plug-and-play smart water meters running off existing networking infrastructure and by leveraging machine-to-machine communication to provide high-value, water-use data that helps quicken the utilities’ response time.
If the pattern continues, about 600,000 cellular-enabled smart water meters will be shipped to the North American market annually by 2020, forecasts IHS.
While smart metering among electricity utilities still garners more attention and deployment wins, the shift among water utilities is noteworthy, says Michael Markides, director of the Smart Utility Infrastructure Group at IHS.
Since electricity cannot be stored and utility services in this space tend to be more commercialized, the jump into smart metering and the real-time big data analysis that comes with will happen soon. The phenomenon has been slower to take hold in water utilities because they tend to be smaller entities and involve public capital investment, Markides says.
Nevertheless,water utilities can sidestep the installation of costly, proprietary infrastructure, and tap into existing cellular networks and use hardware provider know-how to manage the technology and data collection.
“That starts putting the ‘return’ in ROI,” Markides says.
A Water Utility Case Study
Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers an example of what these kinds of installations look like and what may be replicated elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally.
The city recently chose to replace its current metering system with Badger Meter’s BEACON smart water meter solution, and is doing a full installation across all its residential and commercial water meter endpoints. The 35,000 smart meter rollout makes it the single largest implementation of cellular M2M technology in the water utility sector worldwide, according to IHS.
Like other places, the city faces water scarcity issues and its geography makes it challenging from an infrastructure perspective. It also has one of the highest water rates in the U.S., with tiered rates based on usage, says Nicholas Schiavo, Santa Fe’s public utilities director.
The rollout, is expected to take a year, and will allow the utility to get a daily snapshot of its water use, integrate smart meter data with its billing system and pinpoint leaks efficiently.
“People are paying a premium for water here, and they deserve a certain level of services,” Schiavo says, adding that it could take 30 or 40 days to notice a leak. “Now, when we get the readings every day, we can see if there is a potential trouble spot and notify our customers quicker.”
The Supply Chain Around It
As the smart metering industry matures, the supply chain models are also evolving. Often, hardware providers are taking on the role of service provider and IT expert, bridging their products with software and data analysis to make it easier for customers to get going.
In Santa Fe for instance, Badger is the middleman. It gathers the information from smart meter endpoints, works with telecom aggregators to send the data over different carriers’ cellular networks, and repackages the raw data into something the water utility can use. Its BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) solution provides built-in infrastructure management services, consumer engagement tools and highlights possible trouble spots.
“The way we go to market now is a managed solution provider. This eliminates the need for the utility to run its own IT department and the initial expenses of deploying fixed networking systems, gateways and other infrastructure,” says John Fillinger, Badger’s utility marketing manager. “We don’t anticipate that water utilities will have data analysts on site, but we want them to be able to use the information we’re sending them. Part of our BEACON AMA package involves proactive notification.”
“This breaks the traditional model and allows the water utility to focus on what it’s good at: Providing water,” Fillinger adds.
With the market changes underway, keeping suppliers in the loop is important. Fillinger says Badger is providing suppliers, each supplying items with longer lead times, with a clear understanding of where its products development is heading.
Further back in the chain, companies such as Sierra Wireless, a wireless communications equipment designer and manufacturer, are also seeing the impact of how different IoT and M2M-related projects are taking shape. Smart metering continues to be an area of piqued interest, says Olivier Pauzet, Sierra Wireless’ vice president of market strategy.
“Electricity monitoring was getting lots of traction, but now we are seeing new opportunities to connect gas and water metering,” he says. “Water is something that people want to start monitoring. Droughts in places like California have gotten more people thinking about this. Water utilities and consumers want to know how to minimize leakage, and they want to know where the water is going and how it’s being consumed.”
The move to cellular-enabled equipment makes sense, too.
“The ease of use that comes with the cellular network is already there and the [hardware] installation is very easy,” Pauzet says. “As this sector grows, the services will become better and so will the quality of information.”