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Imagine a time when water utilities have to enforce dramatic usage restrictions or even shut off water to millions of customers. Some California citizens are already experiencing that future with electricity. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen in the water sector?

For this reason — as well as for ongoing concerns facing the industry related to ageing infrastructure and increasingly intense weather patterns — water utilities across the country are paying more attention than ever to the resiliency of their water systems.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International issue 1 – 2020. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

In 2019, the American Water Works Association’s State of the Industry survey found that nearly 74% of responding utilities had implemented or were in the process of developing, a community risk and resilience assessment. Half of the respondents noted that climate variability was a consideration in developing these assessments. Additionally, these concerns persuaded legislators to pass a requirement in America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 that requires community water systems serving more than 3,300 people to develop or update risk assessments and emergency response plans. The risk assessments need to include strategies and resources to improve the resilience of the system, such as actions to protect the safety and supply of safe drinking water, physical security and the cybersecurity of the system.

Although there are numerous elements involved with reinforcing the resiliency of a water system, scalable and easy-to-use advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technologies can provide significant benefits for water utilities. Customisable cloud-based analytics platforms, for instance, can enable water utilities to do the following:

  • Eliminate the need for costly maintenance and installation of infrastructure
  • Establish usage alerts
  • Take hourly readings and monitor usage hourly, daily and weekly to save water
  • Reduce leaks
  • Efficiently maintain the water system.

Most notably, the growth of cellular-enabled technologies in water metering is an essential factor in the increased resiliency of many water systems. That is because cellular networks typically come back online fast after major weather events to support emergency efforts. Therefore, a water utility using mobile networks can be back online quickly too.

Water utilities across the US are examining these tools to address their individual needs. Droughts from 2011 to 2015 in California and the western United States proved the necessity for proactive conversations about long-term water supply. Lessons learned from water utilities then are still in place and being implemented to support resiliency planning today.

Building resiliency in Merced, California

Located in the San Joaquin Valley of northern California, an area hit hard by droughts in 2014 and 2015, the City of Merced faced strict water mandates, a growing population and a need for a more flexible and efficient water management solution.

Historically, Merced was unmetered like many communities across the state. However, in the 1990s, to address California’s newly adopted requirement to install water meters, Merced’s Water System Division standardised its metering service. The utility deployed Badger Meter meters with TRACE, a drive-by/ walk-by radio frequency automatic meter reading (AMR) system. Over the next two decades, as technology advanced and Merced continued to grow, the city upgraded with new technology that offered added benefits, such as customer-side leak detection and data profiling. Nevertheless, even with the upgrades, inefficiencies existed. While only half of the city was retrofitted with meters, it took two workers more than a week to read them.

The city’s expanding population, because of the University of California-Merced’s growing campus and new business developments, also contributed to a strain on the water system. Knowing that the city would only continue to expand in the coming years, the City of Merced’s water team discussed solutions for managing the increasing demands on its water system.

The plan for a growing water system

To address the unmetered portion of the system, the Water System Division devised a methodical plan to install an additional 10,800 meters beyond the already existing 10,500 residential meters within the city. The team also determined that they needed a more efficient meter reading solution to better understand and monitor their operations and provide the utility with the ability to communicate more effectively with its customer base.

Because of the city’s growing community, the Water System Division wanted to implement a system without fixed infrastructure. After speaking with other utilities and researching solutions, the team determined a traditional fixed infrastructure would not only be costly to deploy, repair and maintain, but it would also require ongoing buildouts as the system expanded.

Instead, cellular technology offered a more flexible solution without the need for physical gateways. By using secure, commercially available cellular networks, it removed any need to invest in costly infrastructure, and allowed for rapid deployment.

Merced’s Water System Division ultimately installed a cloud-based software analytics platform with cellular endpoints and a customer portal.

Zero emissions grant makes the difference

With the plan for a new, standardised water management system in place, Merced applied for a California Zero Emissions Grant to help pay for it. The California Zero Emissions Grants were instituted following Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr’s call to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Although Merced didn’t receive the grant in the first round of decisions, the second try proved more fruitful. In summer 2015, the city’s water conservation specialist learned that Merced had received a Zero Emissions Grant for $2.5 million.

State supervisors in charge of the grant programme saw the potential for the city’s combined water and energy savings resulting from the new infrastructure-free fixed network solution. Because no physical infrastructure was needed, automated meter reading technology alongside its cellular endpoints would help the utility decrease traditional AMR drive time and improve water consumption accuracy. The grant also ensured that the city could move forward with implementation more quickly and efficiently than anticipated.

Efficient deployment

In a little less than one year, Merced’s Water System Division installed the new meters along with cellular endpoints in the previously unmetered service locations. Through it all, the crews were able to maintain strict quality control of the installation project with minimal disruption to customers. The city managed real-time inventory and saved more than 35% in implementing the project compared to the amount other cities or utilities incur in smart meter programmes.

Increasing efficiencies throughout the system

With the new solution in place, Merced’s Water System Division is receiving timely consumption data and working with customers that have higher than normal usage patterns to identify potential leaks. Prior to implementing the system, it took the team up to 30 days to see leaks because they were only reading meters once a month. The water team now finds and addresses leaks within 24 hours, which saves time and money for both the water utility and its end customers. In fact, after installing the new system, Merced’s Water System Division found a leak that was losing 500 gallons (1,893 litres) of water per hour every hour and immediately fixed the problem.

The utility team also started using a consumer engagement platform, which offers smartphone and tablet apps. By implementing this tool internally and rolling it out to customers, the team has an added resource for capturing data and improving customer service. Internally, the utility team is utilising the software to generate a daily workload, so they no longer have to wait for the full meter reading cycle to occur. In addition, the utility has shown customers how apps can enable them to monitor their usage and immediately contact the team with questions.

With these solutions in place, the city has realised a decrease in non-revenue water and improved customer service. The upgrades helped the city and its citizens meet and exceed the state-mandated 36% reduction in water and energy consumption. Now, due to the efficiencies and metering capabilities provided by the solution, customers are billed based on their actual usage rather than a flat rate.

Merced’s strategic and thoughtful efforts are a prime example of responding to a challenging reality and preparing for an uncertain future. Its system continues to support the city’s efforts to increase water and energy conservation. And, by optimising efficiency, Merced’s Water System Division is saving time and money – all of which help ensure a resilient response when facing the next drought.

About Kristie Anderson
Kristie Anderson is marketing manager at Badger Meter