Analytics Made Easier

A cellular-based solution from Badger Meter lets utilities collect and analyze data to improve operations and service – without investing in a proprietary network.
Analytics Made Easier
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Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) lets water utilities wirelessly collect data that helps them operate more efficiently and serve customers better.

However, adopting AMI typically has meant investing in a separate data network and assuming responsibility for software, communication gateways, servers and other infrastructure — items not necessarily within utilities’ core competency.

Now Badger Meter has introduced the BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) system, a managed solution that can use traditional fixed network communications, existing cellular networks or both. The company takes responsibility for the infrastructure, enabling the utility to benefit from the data while focusing on the business of producing and delivering high-quality water. John Fillinger, director of utility marketing, talked about the offering in an interview with Water System Operator.

wso: What exactly makes this offering unique among automated meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems?

Fillinger: In previous-generation offerings, including ours and those of competitors, fixed networks were becoming more and more complex, and they were forcing water utilities to put on many hats. For example, when they put in a system, they would need a dedicated IT person to service the software and the servers. They needed the sites and the expertise to place gateways. All this made it difficult for utilities. Our managed solution says to utilities, ‘Let us take all that risk and handle all those things you aren’t or don’t want to be good at, while you get all the benefits and you focus on what you do best.’

wso: Is this a cloud-based solution?

Fillinger: Yes, it’s a cloud-based or hosted solution. The software is accessible by any utility personnel. We’ve also interwoven a consumer engagement piece, called EyeOnWater, that allows the utilities to provide usage data directly to their end water customers. Now they can partner with those customers to educate them on their water use or help drive conservation programs. The data also serves as a proof source, so that as bills are being rolled out, customers can look at their usage profile and understand their bill before they actually get it. That helps prevent the floods of calls that often come in soon after a bill is mailed.

wso: From a hardware perspective, what does the BEACON AMA offering consist of?

Fillinger: It’s based on our ORION family of endpoints. We have two endpoints now for network deployments. We have a fixed-network endpoint that continues to use gateways. If a utility went down that path with BEACON AMA, Badger Meter would install and maintain the gateways and the utility would still get the full benefits of the data. We’ve also released a cellular endpoint that requires no gateways.

wso: Does this technology accommodate utilities of different sizes and with different characteristics?

Fillinger: Yes. It is customizable for each utility’s needs. We provide an engineered design that best suits the number of services, the topography and the service density of each utility.

wso: What exactly is the advantage of the cellular endpoints?

Fillinger: The cellular endpoints in themselves are not a new technology. Cellular is used in AMI systems, but typically it uses gateways to communicate the data back. So if a utility wants to deploy a system today, they would have to find locations for gateways, get approval to install them, run electricity to them and clear various other hurdles. Our cellular endpoints erase those concerns. They use the cellular network that is already present in the territory to communicate data back to the hosted environment for presentation to the utility and the end customers. They can be deployed in residential or commercial applications — wherever the utility has meters. It just makes sense to use existing communication networks.

wso: How do the utility personnel experience this managed data solution?

Fillinger: As part of the BEACON AMA offering, we have released new software. It’s very easy to use. It’s powerful, yet intuitive. There is an at-a-glance page that can be customized for each user at the utility. They can define which widgets they see when they open the program, and any information in the database is within a couple of clicks of a mouse.

wso: Can you give an example of how this works?

Fillinger: Suppose I am a customer service representative and I want to be able to pull up any customer’s account at any time. I would have the Help widget on the at-a-glance page so that when someone called in, I could type in their endpoint or meter serial number, their account number or address and access data to help me answer their questions. If I’m in management, I may want to see the system widgets where I can assess the flow health, see how many gallons were measured yesterday versus today, and spot any trends. I could also look at my large customers and see how much they were using on a given day. All that would be on the at-a-glance page.

wso: How might this look from the consumer’s side of the meter?

Fillinger: Using the EyeOnWater software, consumers can set up an account and see their data using a tablet or a smartphone. They can set up a user profile with specific criteria. For example, I could ask to be notified if my usage reached a certain point, or if a spike in usage were to indicate a leak. It also allows them to compare their usage against other homes in the territory of similar size and with similar usage profiles.

wso: Does this system have the ability to adapt so that utilities can avoid obsolescence?

Fillinger: Yes. If we look at how technology has changed, going back 20 years, if you had a cellphone, you carried a bag that contained the batteries. By 2004, you had a flip phone — a significant advancement. Then look at where we are today, with smartphones for making calls, accessing email, getting on the Internet. We looked at the BEACON AMA system in the same way. We wanted to future-proof a utility’s investment. So as part of the offering, we have managed upgrade programs. Over the life of the system, they will receive the latest software and will be able to upgrade to all the latest technology.

wso: Is there two-way communication between the utility and end users?

Fillinger: Yes. If the system were to go down for a period of time, we have the ability to reach back to the endpoints and pull data that was missed. The two-way communication improves utilities’ ability to collect and manage data, manage revenue, identify leaks, respond to customer inquiries, address billing issues, monitor conservation programs, configure and send regulatory compliance reports, and more.

wso: How resilient is this system in the face of major disruptions, such as from storms or floods?

Fillinger: One of our first customers to deploy a BEACON AMA system wanted cellular endpoints because they are in an area where natural disasters occur more often than in other parts of the country, and they know when those events happen the cellular network is typically the first thing that is put back up. They wanted the ability to know how the system was performing after a natural disaster. Are there breaks in the line? Are there other things they should know about? Another advantage of the cellular endpoints is we can use a variety of networks. When an endpoint is first installed, it identifies the networks that are available locally, then ranks them according to strength. If Provider A has the strongest signal, then that will be the preferred network. But if something happens to Provider A, the endpoint will automatically roll to Provider B or C. The data will continue to go through as if nothing ever happened.

wso: How do utilities pay for this service?

Fillinger: Utilities can get started at a much lower price than with a traditional system. We remove the risk they would have in deploying gateways and purchasing software and hardware. We provide the software, and the gateways and installation if they choose to go with a proprietary network. We provide the training and get them started on the system. The utility then pays an endpoint activation fee and a monthly subscription fee over the life of the system.

wso: Will any kind of consulting or ongoing training be offered to help utilities optimize their use of the system?

Fillinger: We want to develop a community of users. We will do online training to get them started and comfortable with day-to-day tasks. Then, through our user community, we will offer weekly opportunities to learn to implement the more powerful features of the software, such as alerts and analytics. We would like to see utilities talking to utilities and utilities talking to Badger Meter, so that we can all share through experience and bring out best practices.


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