We live in a thirsty world, but our water supply is dripping through our fingers.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dripping faucets and leaking fixtures alone can waste more than a trillion gallons of water annually nationwide, and billions (if not trillions) are wasted through aging infrastructure. With drought looming in the West, many states are facing a serious water crisis.
Unfortunately, we don’t really know how much water is being consumed or how much is lost in transit. However, “smart” water meters and their infrastructure can help establish an accurate baseline across an entire city or utility. This can help reduce water waste, identify leaks and generate vital usage data.
What are smart water meters?
Water meters are the connection point between utilities and their consumers. They track how much water is consumed at each individual location, allowing the utility to bill customers based on their actual usage.
Nearly every city has a water meter for each customer. Typical mechanical water meters rely on the flow of water to push a dial. However, these traditional water meters are often unable to track low flows of water—especially as they age—meaning each individual water meter accounts for less water than is actually consumed.
Many of the organizations that manage our water supply are beginning to replace these water meters with smart systems that can accurately track total water consumption. These smart water meters allow municipalities to gain access to real-time, accurate water usage and billing data—which enables powerful analytics, reduced operational costs and increased revenues for the utility.
The two common types of systems are Automated Meter Reading (AMR) or Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems. These can be complementary, though AMR is usually a building block for AMI. Other utility meters, such as electricity or natural gas, also use these technologies.
AMR systems rely on radio frequency communications and can be read remotely. That means utility staff don’t need to walk door to door, find the meter, read it in person and then go to the next house. Instead, one person can drive down the road and collect the signals from all of the meters. This is safer, more efficient and more accurate.
AMI sends usage information to a central hub through a communication network rather than sending out a localized signal. This usage data offers a significant depth of information the utility can use and can share with the customer. AMI systems collect and store accurate readings in real time, and can alert water managers and consumers if it detects tampering, leaks, low batteries or reverse flow—the kinds of issues that would normally take weeks to discover.
An accurate inventory of water consumption can help the utility identify leaks, aid in long-term capital planning and devise effective water conservation strategies. Additionally, smart meters help account for the difference between consumed and paid-for water and the “non-revenue water” that gets lost along the way due to leaks.
This data also offer tantalizing conservation possibilities for consumers. For example, if customers can have access to real-time consumption data, they could know when they’re using more water than other times and reduce their consumption accordingly.
This data can also help identify leaks. For example, a constant flow of consumption at a time when use is generally low (such as at night) may signal a leaking faucet or running toilet.
Concerns over smart meters
While the benefits are substantial, smart meters certainly aren’t without their issues.
If old water meters failed to track the right amount of water used by a customer, that person would see higher water bills if a new smart meter accurately tracked their consumption. Additionally, the upfront cost of implementing these meters will likely be borne by the consumer—even though the increase may well be offset by other savings down the line.
In addition, some consumers have expressed privacy concerns regarding the sharing of their personal consumption data with the utility.
Other consumers are concerned about possible adverse effects from radio frequency exposure. However, these signals are similar to those transmitted by wireless routers and cell phones, and have not been scientifically proven to adversely affect human health.
Looking to the future
Smart meters, and the infrastructure that enables them, can serve as a backbone for a networked city. Other city services—like LED streetlights or city-provided WiFi—could potentially be provided through the same infrastructure.
As cities across the United States confront demographic changes, aging infrastructure and the shifting expectations of their citizens, they will need to modernize without breaking the bank. Starting with smart infrastructure—like smart water meters—will lay a strong foundation for the modern 21st century city.