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Smart Water Networks not a Pipe Dream

Anne WrobetzWater is a necessity not only to life but to industry, transportation, and electricity generation. Yet, despite its vitality, water delivery and treatment is a utility that goes overlooked by many. Infrastructure grows increasingly older and much of the time goes without replacement.

Aging infrastructure leads to problems like those in Flint, Michigan, where a combination of old lead pipes and a change in source water lead to high and dangerous concentrations of lead in the town’s drinking water. Emergency situations like this one are costly, so prevention seems the logical reaction. But replacing old systems requires more money than many water utilities earn. In the United States alone, the cost to replace water infrastructure could be as high as $1 trillion over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association. With such a large investment needed, it makes sense to invest in advanced monitoring and billing systems to maximize the lifetime of existing infrastructure.

Smart water networks involve a system of communicating devices that provide data about the water distribution system and consumption by the end user. The core of these networks is a communications infrastructure that can either piggyback on existing cellular structures or be constructed anew. Data is fed to this network through smart water meters, which are typically installed at each end user’s building, whether it be a standing home, apartment building, or industrial facility. These meters utilize magnetic resonance, mechanical flow sensors, and acoustics to detect and measure water flow into the building. This data is reported to the network, then parsed and delivered to the customer along with the bill.

The installation of smart water networks is more expensive than the replacement of old mechanical flow meters that do not communicate. Additionally, smart water meters may have to be replaced more often because they are reliant on battery technology. Despite the heightened cost of installation, smart water networks offer a number of advantages over traditional water metering.

For one, reading of the meter data is done remotely, either directly from the center of the network via advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or from a vehicle which drives around and collects data from one-way advanced meter reading (AMR) devices. This saves a utility money in that they do not have to employ someone to manually read meters. In addition, the data provided by a smart meter is more accurate and far more granular. A two-way communicating meter can send data every 1 to 2 seconds, as opposed to a mechanical meter which is read once a month, if at all. This means that utilities are able to charge for the exact amount of water consumed by a customer, as opposed to an estimate or flat rate. This in turn leads to enhanced customer service, since utilities can proactively address issues like leaks and sudden increases in consumption.

Many municipalities have seen the benefits of smart water installation. Little Egg Harbor Township in New Jersey is primarily filled with vacation homes. During a typical winter, many water pipes are apt to freeze and leak. Because these homes are unoccupied for much of the year, these leaks can go unnoticed and cause damage to the home. The installation of 9,000 meters equipped with the Sensus FlexNet communication network allows the utility to proactively communicate leaks and other issues to its customers. This helps to prevent damage to the structures and helps the Little Egg Harbor Municipal Utilities Authority to build a stronger customer service segment.

However, despite the many benefits that smart water networks bring to utilities and customers alike, there are several issues preventing the widespread adoption of these technologies. The first of these issues is, as mentioned above, cost. Smart water meters can be two to three times as expensive as traditional meters, and that does not include the cost of a network to gather the data. Smart water meters offer relatively short payback periods due to lower labor costs paid to meter readers, more efficient billing, and lower losses of water through the system, but many utilities cannot easily obtain the funding for investment. Somewhat paradoxically, many utilities do not want to invest in a seemingly unproven technology, but the slow growth of the smart water market means it will be several years before it exits the early adopter phase.

As current pilot projects reach the end of their cycles, the market is expected begin to grow more rapidly around 2023. Finally, consumer attitudes toward smart water metering tend to be negative, primarily due to a lack of education about the technology. Investing in advanced technology like smart water meters does drive up the utility bill for the end customer, occasionally leading to public disapproval of these types of projects. However, with proper outreach, this too can be addressed. The Town of Cary, North Carolina implemented an Aquastar AMI system of 60,000 meters beginning in 2013. Public acceptance of the project, while initially low, has been steadily rising as the benefits are seen, according to Karen Mills, director of the town’s finance department.

The smart water network market is not growing as rapidly as that of smart electric or gas meters, due to its reliance on batteries, the lower prices of water, and less public awareness of the technology’s benefits. According Navigant Research’s upcoming Smart Water Networks report, this market is forecast to grow from $2.5 billion in 2016 to $7.2 billion in 2025. While the market for smart water meters is slower to take hold, the market opportunity across the next decade is promising.

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