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Enhancing Water Utility Industry Operations using Cloud Technology

by Anjana Khaire

Situation

Rapid changes are taking place in Water, Gas and Electric Utilities throughout the world. Their key focus now is to make better use of spatial data. Utility restructuring and privatization will soon have affected nearly every region of the world. Water, waste water, gas and electric utilities from Australia to South America are being privatized. Utilities are under increasing pressure to reduce costs and improve the value of service.

The water industry in the United States has two main segments:

  1. Utilities:
    Utilities supply services to customers.
  2. General services:
    General services provide water and waste water related services to utilities and other consumers.

Objective

The objective of any water, gas and electric utility is to effectively plan and manage how they deliver commodities to consumers. The outcome of which should be such that both the utilities and consumers should be more efficient and profitable.

In order to achieve this, a next generation wireless communication method is required.

Automated Meter Reading (AMR) to Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)

AMR

To cater to the above mentioned objective, AMR technologies provide reduced meter reading costs and estimated bills. However, it lacks in providing a solution that enables daily and on-demand scheduled meter reading, variable pricing options, integration with information systems, and self-monitoring, alarm alerts for customers.

How AMR works?

It is an older technology that only collects consumption data and transfers it from the meter to the utility which is a "one-way communication". Here meters communicate to central collector via radio signals, power-line communications or satellite reads about their monthly or daily consumption totals.

AMI

AMI is the next-generation solution for water utilities that goes beyond the limitations of AMR.

How AMI works?

AMI meters, also called as Smart meters are also designed to transmit information from the utility company to the consumer which constitutes to a "two-way communication". As compared to AMR, AMI is available on demand and the communication channel used is more robust which is controlled from a central point. Interval data is collected and not merely simple totals like it is done in AMR. It also enables delivery of a wide variety of services such as remote disconnects and ensures that service is currently available.

Benefits of AMI

  1. Non-Revenue Water Loss
    Due to leaks in the distribution system, there is water that has been treated but never billed. With an AMI system, the whole distribution network can be continuously monitored by hourly interval reads. It allows a water utility to find evidence of leaks.
  2. Asset Management
    Since water systems are typically underground, water utility does not get an insight of how different parts of distribution system are performing. AMI thus helps to get this insight thereby extending life of assets.
  3. Customer Service
    As detailed consumer's consumption information is present in the AMI system, a CS representative can give complete details of water consumption which could be helpful during a high water bill complaint.
  4. Variable Pricing Structures
    AMI enables to build price structures as per customer usage i.e. those who consume energy more at peak hours are charged more. This also encourages customer to save money as they will start thinking about appropriate consumption.
  5. Short Billing Cycles
    As compared to traditional water meters, AMI facilitates shorter billing cycles as the process between consumption and bill generation has decreased. Consequently this helps on increasing utility's cash flow.

Challenges in implementing AMI

Since the amount of meter data to be handled by the utilities is huge, water utilities need to implement a Meter Data Management (MDM) application which will handle large amount of data from multiple meter types, store it and process it as per utility needs.

A major challenge for implementing an efficient AMI solution is to select a communication technology that will provide ultra-low-power consumption, long battery life, reliable long-range communications, flexibility to connect with wide area networks and with nominal cost. Though Wi-Fi provides suitable range and connectivity, it consumes too much power to attain the required multi-year battery life.

While building AMI solutions for the water industry, network capabilities and design play an important role. For example, the network must be flexible enough to adapt to rural and urban scenarios. They need to consider pit, indoor, or outdoor environments that are usually present in most of America's water utilities and around the world. The network must be reliable and robust against physical and electronic interference in order to ensure the on-time delivery of critical data to the utility using advanced wireless communications technologies.

Till today the greatest technical challenge facing water and gas smart infrastructure applications is that they utilize battery powered devices. This is due to the reason that either power does not exist in the locations where the water or gas module resides, is relatively expensive to provision, or is not practical from a safety or security perspective. Yet advances have been made in lithium battery technology to support 20-year battery life cycles. Clever design approach is required to minimize the computational capacity and RF transceiver operations. Thus, most water and gas AMI applications remain focused on keeping the computational burden on battery power minimal by keeping the required transmissions for simple meter reading limited to a couple of times a day.

Security concerns like confidentiality of customer data and payments, data thefts, physical and logical tampering of meters, authentication bypass pose a challenge. Other concerns are Integrity of meter data, usage data and rate information. One key concern is the ability of a hacker to reverse engineer a stolen or purchased field device such as a meter. Also there is a possibility of sniffing where the attacker can decrypt and observe command and control messages to meters. To greatly reduce the risk of a hacker evading device security in the AMI system, the manufacturer can lock the microcontrollers containing the firmware. This prevents intruders from reading the firmware from the device. The manufacturer can encrypt the firmware to increase the security of the transfer and download into the device.

Applications

In a water industry, Smart meter will be working as follows:

On the customer premise, interval meters will measure consumption during specific time periods. This data will be send to the utility on a daily basis. Similarly, in electric industry measurement interval could be 10 or 15 minutes or more.

Utility uses a communications channel to obtain meter reads on demand, to determine whether water has recently been flowing through the meter and onto the premises, and to issue commands to the meter to perform specific tasks such as disconnecting or restricting water flow.

A smart meter may also include the following:

  1. At the Customer Side :
    Smart Metering may include an easy to read display. It can help customers to detect leaks and reduce consumption. Utilities can also provide information to customers via web portals and printouts. This way utilities are trying to redefine their relationship with customers.
  2. At the Utility :
    Smart Metering may include additional data collection and processing software such as a meter data management application. It might detect leaks and notify or send automatic alerts to customers. It may help in monitoring compliance. It may also include billing system and account management tools.
  3. Communication infrastructure capable of relaying readings and alarms from the field back to corporate information systems at any point of time. Allowing off-site staff to supervise entire networks remotely.
  4. In the water and gas industries, similar applications are available for providing hydraulic analysis and determining pressure and flow. Earlier this analysis took days or weeks which now can be done in few minutes.
  5. Real-time data can be used to anticipate problems in water, gas and electric delivery systems which could help network operators to know about the nature and location of a problem.
  6. Not only is the AMI being implemented in the water and gas industry, developments are now also seen across the electric industry for automating distribution, theft detection, load balancing etc.

The Future

Water is becoming a scarce resource and hence water utilities will need to gain an insight into the data involved within. In the future, this data will be used to decrease operating costs, identify performance issues, enhance customer service and better prioritize infrastructure investments.

Meter manufacturers will play an important role by enhancing meter capabilities which will make use of ultrasonic and magnetic flow measurement technologies.

AMI Systems are evolving over the time to form a "smart meter system" by interacting with more systems like Billing system, Document Management System, GIS System etc.

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