Turning Data Into Action

Advanced Metering Analytics help utilities use hourly interval information from metering systems to detect issues that need addressing.

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A dvanced metering infrastructure (AMI) with fixed network communication has given water utilities an abundance of data — typically hourly information on customers’ water usage. The challenge has been turning that data into information that can guide performance-enhancing actions.

Meeting that challenge is the aim of Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) from Badger Meter. The technology combines the company’s ORION SE two-way or GALAXY one-way fixed network AMI solutions, its secure analytics-based ReadCenter software, and its family of meters and encoders. Essentially, the system takes in the hourly AMI data, identifies conditions that require attention, and alerts appropriate personnel to take action — all automatically.

Morrice Blackwell, marketing manager for software solutions with Badger Meter, talked about the technology and its applications in an interview with Water System Operator.

wso: What is the market need this offering is designed to address?

Blackwell: It’s part of the evolution of automated meter reading (AMR), which is a very efficient way to get meter information. AMR has been around since the 1980s. The first fixed AMI metering networks for water arrived in 1996 and supplied daily information.

Most manufacturers now have gone to hourly information, but until now all that has done is give utilities loads of data without giving them a reason to have it.

We saw that having hourly interval data in a water system could be very powerful if it were analyzed and presented in a meaningful way. So we worked with our customers to understand certain conditions they were concerned about within their water systems. And we developed analytics that allow them to take the hourly information and get feedback on those conditions.

wso: What would be an example of a condition this system would flag?

Blackwell: Let’s consider under-usage. In any water utility you have the 80-20 rule: About 80 percent of users are residential, and about 20 percent are commercial or industrial users. In many small communities, five or six large users may make up a very large share of the revenue. If those meters were to malfunction or slow down mechanically, the utility would lose significant revenue.

One of the analytics we run for customers is for average consumption. We allow them to set up the analytics to alert them when a large customer’s metered usage falls a certain percentage below that customer’s average consumption.

wso: In simple terms, how does the analytics process work?

Blackwell: First we define the system exceptions the customer cares about. Next we define the accounts to monitor for those exceptions — say, commercial meters over 2 inches. We then define who at the utility should be alerted when that exception occurs, and how they should be alerted — such as by email or SMS text. We also define how often they should be alerted — the first time the exception happens? Every time it happens? And finally, we define what action they want the person to take upon receiving the alert.

wso: So, how might this process play out if monitoring for under-consumption?

Blackwell: Suppose we set the analytics to flag consumption down by 25 percent from the average on commercial meters 2 inches or larger. When this happens for a given customer, the system would send the meter supervisor or other appropriate party an email saying the account has shown consumption under normal usage, and the action to take is to set up a work order for investigation.

wso: What other conditions would a utility want to monitor?

Blackwell: They would definitely want to know about leaks, tampers and reverse flows. Let’s consider leaks. If a consumer has a leak in the home, the endpoint will notify the utility that the customer is in a continuous usage state. The system will then send an email telling a customer service representative to call the customer.

Another useful alert is for inactive accounts. This is helpful in states like Florida, where for the summer months some residents live elsewhere. Those people like someone to monitor their homes to make sure they don’t get a pipe burst or some leak that goes on while they’re away. The utility can issue a consumption alert, so that if an account in an inactive state uses more than some small amount per day, someone is sent out to investigate that.

wso: How would notifications work for tampers or reverse flows?

Blackwell: If a wire is cut, the endpoint knows there has been a short in the line, and then broadcasts to the utility that it is in a tamper condition. It could be that someone is trying to steal water, or it could be that the wire was damaged by accident.

Reverse flow could occur because of poor piping condition. Or you could have an industrial user operating at a pressure that overcomes the normal water pressure in the system. The AMA system would let the utility know, and someone would be alerted to take action right away.

wso: Are there any alerts to possibly notify someone about a malfunction in the metering equipment itself?

Blackwell: Yes. Endpoints that have been out in the field for a long time will send an alert if they go into a low-battery condition. The system will also provide notification of encoder errors or programming changes that may or may not have been performed by authorized personnel.

In addition, utilities may want to know when a particular meter reaches a certain amount of total consumption, as this may trigger them to perform maintenance on that meter. They may say for example that when a 2-inch turbo meter reaches 500,000 gallons, it is time to do a repair or maintenance on it. It’s easy to set up an analytical alarm that sends notifications for those conditions.

wso: How do you ensure that customers are ready to use the analytics optimally?

Blackwell: Our trainers work with utilities to explain how the analytics work and help them set up the alerts they care about. Every utility is a little different. A utility has to be smart about deploying the analytics. If they set them wrong, they could be overwhelmed with alerts. But if they set the alerts correctly and inform the right people to act on them, the analytics can be quite useful.

wso: What other attributes does the analytics system have?

Blackwell: The hourly data is very useful for settling billing disputes. Traditionally, when a customer disputes a bill, the utility would go out and test the meter and explain how the meter works, and that’s a lot of time and effort. But when you have proof of how much water the customer used on an hourly basis, it’s much easier to reach a resolution. The customer may look at the data and say, “Oh, that’s right, my aunt and her three kids were here for a week and they took two showers a day.”

Another benefit is for network management. When a utility installs a fixed network for the first time, there can be a bit of consternation about whether all the endpoints are calling in, and whether all the data collectors are online and functioning. We provide a system dashboard with easy-to-understand graphs that show the endpoints and the data collectors and the status they’re in.

wso: How has this system been received in the marketplace so far?

Blackwell: We have several customers using it, and they are seeing the value of the analytics. One utility has an area in town with about 10 large hotels. They used to send someone out every day to monitor those meters, because if one of them were to go down, they could lose hundreds or thousands of dollars per day.

With our system in place, they no longer have to send someone out, and no one even has to run reports to check. You tell the system what you’re concerned about, and you don’t have to take any action unless the system tells you to. It’s a system that enables proactive management. It provides vital information utilities need, when they need it, and in the format of their choice, all to improve decision-making. And because it’s web-based, it’s easy to administer and deploy.


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