Smart water metering: a pioneering approach


By Mike Busetti and Tony Clement

The energy utilities industry is undergoing a global transformation into the information age based on the assumption that consumers and utilities will gain from collecting and distributing granular, real time information. South East Water is committed to bringing these benefits to its customers. 

Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, passed the population milestone of 22 million in 2009. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that, by 2056, the population will grow to between 30.9 and 42.5 million people. Therefore, even without taking into account the impact of climate change, we will place greater stress on our natural resources than we do today, and increase our demands on water and sewer infrastructure.

The trend of decreasing rainfall, linked to climate change, only exacerbates this situation. Victoria in Future 2008, the state’s official population projection, reports that “Victoria’s population will increase from 5.13 million in 2006 to 7.4 million by 2036, an increase of 2.27 million, or 44.2%.” The document goes on to project that “as household size continues to decline, mainly due to an ageing population, household growth is expected to grow even faster – by 54.6% between 2006 and 2036.”

To avoid creating an ever larger “urban sprawl” in Melbourne, the state government has actively encouraged high density development around transport nodes. However, the existing infrastructure was not designed with this level of density in mind, and this poses considerable challenges to the future delivery of water and removal of effluent. At the same time, we want to avoid the costly excavation and replacement of infrastructure surrounding railways lines, tram lines and bus routes.

Customers, for their part, are highly aware of the need to use less water, and have a strong desire for more information about their water use. However, customers react better to being given information about the volume of water that they use, and how they compare to their peers or to targets set by government, than to information on the price of water. Water conservation campaigns focusing on cost savings have been far less effective than those that compare customers’ consumption to mandated targets: saving 10 litres per day against a target of 155 litres is quite a significant achievement.

The low cost of water belies the actual public concern for water conservation. While water restrictions have reduced consumption, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) and the National Water Commission agree that current water restriction practices are inequitable, and a relatively inefficient mechanism for reducing water use.

Finally, the water industry’s mandate is becoming more complex. Today, there are various sources of supply – drinking, recycled, rain water tanks; some properties are even installing black water treatment plants and carrying out recycling on site. Although “postage stamp” pricing and services were once appropriate, a world with new services and sources of supply will need innovative servicing and pricing models.

Smart water metering presents the opportunity to deal with some of these challenges by delivering water in a smarter way than in the past, instead of struggling to deliver water in ever increasing amounts.

The first area of benefit is in better understanding the performance of water infrastructure assets. Real time monitoring at smaller district and household levels is the foundation of analysis that provides real knowledge of the water balance. It also underpins the ability to identify areas of the network requiring attention – enabling better maintenance, management, planning, and predictive modelling. Pressure can also be monitored in this way, and there is a direct relationship between pressure and asset life. Being able to manage pressure in real time based on asset performance should extend the life of assets and, importantly, reduce water leakage throughout the network.

The second area of benefit is that smart water metering could also be used to move from mandatory water restrictions, which dictate how drinking water supply can be used, to empower the consumer to self-manage achievement of specified objectives.

South East Water was formed in 1996 through the disaggregation of Melbourne Water into three water corporations (with combined network distribution and retail functions) and one wholesale entity. The Victorian state government owns the water corporations and sets the water policy and framework for the management of water across the state. It stipulates the water corporations’ obligations, and monitors and audits their performance. Retail water corporations provide water and sewerage services across their service area.

It has been said that we in the water industry are custodians of our most precious natural resource, drinking water, and at South East Water we aim to deliver the highest economic, social and environmental benefits in every project undertaken. Advanced meter reading (AMR) is a basic form of smart water metering, and our journey with AMR technology evolved out of this philosophy, and was driven by a number of business imperatives.

In the mid 1990s, property developers started installing water meters in their multi-level and commercial occupancies. The driver for property developers was the marketing advantage they received by giving the property owner the ability to pass on water usage and disposal charges to their tenants. However, this was not possible because the Victorian Residential Tenancies Act provides for usage and disposal charges to be passed on to tenants only when the water corporation owns the meter.

South East Water responded to the market and approved the individual metering and positioning of meters within common access areas of multi-level and commercial buildings, providing that an AMR system supplied by South East Water was installed. This also addressed the need to read meters that were difficult to access – for security, safety or other reasons.

To ensure a consistent AMR approach and deliver on customer expectations, Itron Australasia’s 40W ERT modules and fixed Micro Network was selected following an open tender in 1997. To date, we have over 50,000 end points on our AMR network, with the majority read through fixed communications networks. In this respect South East Water has led Victoria to a position more advanced than any other jurisdiction in Australia: other state governments are still only considering the adoption of sub-metering in multi-unit developments.

The AMR journey has taught South East Water many valuable lessons. When customers are given the choice between seeing a reader in their yard or apartment corridor, or simply seeing them walking by, the latter is always chosen. Part of the reason is security, and although we have safeguards in place, we can dramatically reduce the liability for everyone involved by letting customers know that access to their property is no longer required – taking away the possibility of a misunderstanding or unfortunate incident. The result has been a material reduction of the number of meter reading complaints. Essentially, when customers know steps have been taken to reduce or eliminate inconvenience and misunderstanding, they’re happy.

Victorian state water policy has explored innovative ways of conserving water, including smart water metering, urban water markets and sophisticated behaviour change programmes. However, a new level of industry-wide cooperation is needed to capitalise on the latent synergies created by the implementation of smart grids, which South East Water is actively engaging.

Customers want – and need – more timely information, and will look to market players (e.g. water corporations) for information, service, support and products. South East Water’s vision is to provide them with water solutions for a better future. Part of the reason that it has pursued smart water metering so strongly is that it has the potential to trigger the development of innovative and entirely new services and products.

For example, smart water metering can enable ground moisture sensors to automatically trigger sprinkler systems, drawing on both mains and a water tank, optimising water use within water restriction guidelines (Figure 1). Such products can be monitored and controlled through the internet, giving customers the ability to manage the service through their inhome displays, PCs, smart phones, and other devices.

Inno water1

Figure 1 – An innovative water solution

External watering generates peak demand and associated system sizing. If peak demand can be staggered this could provide benefits in network optimisation to address future growth needs. The change from solely bulk delivery of a product (drinking water) to provision of a range of products with diverse service characteristics and price, whilst ensuring the nondiscretionary drinking water needs are available with 100% security to all.

Smart metering infrastructure includes dedicated networks, SCADA and the internet – these are merely different channels that can deliver critical information, infrastructure management, and predictive analytics (Figure 2). They should not be designed, managed or maintained in isolation. Rather, they should be seen as an integrated information network. South East Water is ensuring it gets maximum value through the ability to bring all of this information together.

Inno water2

Figure 2 – Possible smart water metering infrastructure

The Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), on behalf of the Victorian Water Trust, recently concluded a high level cost-benefit study of urban smart water metering in Victoria. The study identified significant quantitative and qualitative benefits to smart water metering, and recommended gathering more detailed information on the impact of smart water metering across the urban sector.

South East Water helped initiate this collaborative, industry-wide study, and proactively participated in its development. South East Water has also been leading the initiative to define home area network (HAN) functionality guidelines that will let the water industry take full advantage of the deployment of smart electricity metering via an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) programme to all small-use electricity customers in Victoria.

This deployment has already begun, and uses the ZigBee Smart Energy Profile HAN standard to extend the connectivity of smart grids to a range of devices, including other meters and sensors, appliances, electric and hybrid electric vehicles. Our vision was for one of these devices to be a smart water meter.

Given that a new version of the ZigBee HAN protocol would be locked in by the end of 2009, the water sector identified the need to make a submission to the ZigBee Alliance to ensure that the Smart Energy Profile would include a provision for the collection of water metering data via the electricity meter, and communication of water metering data via the HAN to another device paired with the water meter.

Following the release of the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI)’s HAN functionality guidelines, South East Water responded on behalf of the Melbourne water industry. The DPI conceded that the energy smart metering infrastructure may not be able to accommodate water in its entirety and requested that a workshop be held with the water corporations to establish functional requirements. This resulted in the formulation of a ZigBee smart water metering specification.

The outcomes of the DSE’s cost-benefit study to smart metering and the home area network have been material: 

  • A common understanding by policy makers and water corporations of the benefits of smart water metering 
  • A broad understanding of the value associated with AMI installation 
  • The formation of a smart water strategy group that will lead the development of the water industry’s approach to smart water metering.

The managing directors of Victorian urban water utilities met recently to discuss the implications of the DSE’s study and the ZigBee smart water metering specification, and to consider a way forward. The managing directors agreed to develop a coordinated effort to assess the implications afforded by emerging “smart” technology.

Accordingly, they agreed to form a strategy group under the auspices of VicWater, led by South East Water’s managing director, Shaun Cox. The strategy group will be considering: 

  • Identification of issues associated with smart metering, and the means for comprehensively analysing them 
  • Potential policy implications that might accompany technical developments 
  • Optimal interfaces with the electricity industry 
  • Implications for the way we manage our resources.

South East Water is also the only water corporation in Victoria to be involved in a consortium, along with Jemena and other utilities, to develop a demonstration project that will support the installation of Australia’s first commercial-scale smart grid, and inform the business case for broader industry investment in smart grids in Australia.

The project will employ a mix of innovative technologies and demonstrate the potential of smart grids to monitor supply, manage demand and help customers make informed choices about their energy and water use. The opportunity for other utilities will be in mining the data that is produced on the use of grid appliances, possible network improvements, and the effects on resource consumption when customer knowledge is improved.

Water is one of the most precious and essential requirements to life on earth; the Australian water industry’s mandate to deliver it is not trivial. Population growth, climate change and industry transformation all pose significant challenges to our existing infrastructure and ways of doing business.

South East Water is proactively developing solutions to these challenges before they overwhelm the capacity of current infrastructure, helping ensure that future generations can enjoy the same access to water that we do. Spearheaded by smart water metering, these solutions have proven their ability, in real world applications, to help us produce and consume water more efficiently.

Collaborating with government and industry partners to trial and deploy such solutions has worked in the past, and promises much in the future. As our AMR journey reaches its natural completion, and we progress towards our smart water metering vision, South East Water is committed to bringing these benefits to its customers.

1. South East Water’s submission is available at,-research–and–development2/smart-meters/amihan-functionality-guideline—melbourne-metropolitan-water-submission