About five years ago a pretty smart guy authored a smartish white paper on how San Diego’s water utilities needed to begin looking into smart meter deployment. A lot of people thought it was a smart idea too. This was the paper: Challenge_of_the_Century_San_Diego’s_Water_Crisis. We wrote it, with an assist from Geoffrey Smith. The water utilities ignored it. Ouch, that smarted!
Fast forward five years and now water utilities in San Diego County are still ignoring the potential for smart meters. But some smarter people and cities aren’t quite so smug about the status quo. Why? Because the U.S. is facing an infrastructure problem that many predict will cost astronomical sums to fix. Power grids, bridges, municipal water systems and much of the nation’s water infrastructure are aging and water is becoming more expensive. This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released a report noting, “Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion.” According to industry watcher AOL Energy, 50% to 75% of the total capital costs at public utilities go to supplying energy for water supply and treatment. At the same time, the U.S. loses 1.7 trillion gallons per year to leaky water pipes
The infrastructure that facilitates modern society was built decades ago and is now in need of repair or replacement. But the levels of investment required to upgrade critical services are often prohibitively high for federal, state and local government agencies struggling to recover from the global economic and financial crisis. Also, new smart meters cost more than standard water meters, presenting a budgetary challenge to many water utilities. Smart meters also require additional IT expertise to facilitate data collection and data management – not always a welcome change to risk-averse system operators. And many water utilities are concerned about potential pushback from consumers, given the levels of resistance that some electric utilities have faced from customers in their smart meter rollouts.
But some cities “get it” and have begun getting smarter in its water infrastructure. They understand an upgraded smart network can help them:
1) identify leaks more quickly , thus eliminating water loss and damage caused by leaks;
2) find water meters that aren’t functioning or water being stolen;
3) reduce meter reading and other maintenance costs;
4) improve customer responsiveness and service and
5) boost their abilities to conserve water.
They understand the time is now to address these five pain points and preserve this precious resource for future generations. Some have dipped their toes into this smarter water world. For example, Las Vegas announced last month that it had selected Itron to install nearly 400,000 smart water meter modules on existing water meters over the next five years. Charlotte NC recently unveiled a collaboration project to install a smart water system. CH2M Hill is managing the entire project; Itron is providing water communication modules, the network infrastructure, cloud services and data aggregation; and Verizon will gather the water usage data from a network of machine-to-machine (M2M) devices and transport near real-time information to kiosks utilizing its 4G LTE network. Siemens is providing project support. And Charlotte isn’t alone. Smaller cities like O’Fallon, Missouri have deployed a smart water network that boosted their meter accuracy to 100 percent and cut their unaccounted for water in half. Chesterfield County in South Carolina was losing several hundred gallons of water a day due to leaks from faulty plumbing. The county implemented a smart water network in 2010 and now alerts 12 to 18 customers a day to leaks in their homes or businesses.
Some large meter companies such as ABB, Siemens, IBM, Cisco and Itron have taken the plunge into water meter networks along with some smaller companies such as Sensus and Silver Spring Networks. A U.S. Senate hearing explored the need to upgrade the nation’s water infrastructure in late 2011, concluding that investment in water infrastructure is sorely needed. The US Water Alliance estimated that investments in a Smart Water network would add $19.2 billion to the predicted $365 billion expected cost of reforming the current system, but would create $102 billion (28%) in savings over time. While the numbers are likely to be fairly skewed, the concept is not: smart water meter infrastructure upgrades are a smart idea. But the smart folks who run the local water utilities haven’t smartened up to this yet.