Leveraging Technology to Optimize Customer Service

For many water utilities, building a relationship with their customers that goes beyond billing and collection can support broad objectives, including conservation and an appreciation of the value of water.

(c) Can Stock Photo

If we took a bird’s-eye view of a water utility’s operations, we’d see customers at the fringe of its topography. Yet, from a revenue perspective, nothing is more central and mission critical than accurate invoicing and timely collections. This revenue stream fuels nearly every facet of a utility’s operations. It is also an area where utilities can find valuable opportunities to maximize efficiency while simultaneously improving customer service.

Starting With Measurement

The water meter is essentially a line of demarcation, the intermediary between the customer’s usage and the utility’s resources. Given the capabilities and smarts of today’s water meters, as well as networks and systems to gather and organize the data, the potential is vast. Utilities can gather better intelligence for both their distribution infrastructure and their customers’ usage.

When a utility can truly approach measuring water drop by drop, the possibilities expand. The utility gets fair compensation for the usage. Perhaps more significant, this accuracy can detail usage patterns and open up ideas for conservation.

Dubuque Smart Water Pilot

The City of Dubuque, IA’s Water Department decided to examine a sample of its existing water meters and test their accuracy. Most of them were installed in the 1980s, with a portion installed as recently as 2007. The testing was performed by the M. E. Simpson Company. Both sets of meters were discovered to be outside of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) guidelines on meter accuracy, with the older meters less accurate.

In October 2009, Dubuque issued a request for proposal (RFP) for its Water Meter Replacement Project. The city sought a single vendor, which would provide the meters, the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system and installation. At the time the RFP was issued, the city had been using a variety of meter reading technologies, from direct read to touch read. The task of reading the meters was outsourced to Black Hills Energy, the local natural gas utility. Now the city sought a fixed network solution, and retained engineering firm HDR to help with the RFP preparation and evaluation process.

Neptune Technology Group was awarded the project. The solution consisted of Neptune’s T-10 positive displacement meters, coupled with an R900 solid state encoder. Meter data were transmitted via a wired connection to an R450 meter interface unit (MIU) placed outside the residence. The R450 then sent meter data back via Neptune’s 450-MHz ARB FixedBase AMI system. Neptune Data Collectors were placed on the city buildings, water towers, cell phone towers and school buildings. (It is worth noting that Dubuque has mixed topography, ranging from about 600 to 1,000 feet above sea level.) The city further stipulated that each meter be augmented with a unique device to measure low flows. Called the Unmeasured Flow Reducer, or UFR, the device changes the way water flows through the meter. It converts continuous low flows to intermittent batch flows. In doing this, the water carries more energy and is more accurately read by the meter. At normal flow rates, the UFR opens completely so that water pressure is maintained. The UFR is distributed in North America by A. Y. McDonald Manufacturing Company.