Automatic for the people

In the UK, on average 151 litres of water is lost in leaks every day per property. As utilities look at implementing systems to help with conservation, there are several areas where improvements can be made, writes Berry Drijsen.

Water utilities around the world face many common objectives: gaining operational efficiencies, increasing conservation and addressing water leakage.

Utilities of all sizes and with varying degrees of technology infrastructure are increasingly looking to metering solutions, automatic meter reading (AMR) and advanced leak detection systems as a way to help meet critical business drivers and remain cost-effective in an increasingly challenging environment.

Even in regions which are traditionally rich in water and rainfall, such as the UK, water has become a scarce natural resource. From 2004 into 2005, most of England and Wales experienced below average rainfalls. In southern England, there was exceptionally low rainfall from November 2004 to January 2006, reaching only slightly above 70% of the average from the years 1961-1990, according to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Climate change
With continuing climate changes, it is hard to predict future rainfall levels but the observed trend suggests that the situation must be taken seriously to conserve water.

Simultaneously, the demand for water is growing, partially due to population growth, and partially due to higher consumption. Utilities in the UK are challenged to help protect this vital resource through careful resource management.

Increasingly, utilities are looking at leak detection as an effective way to pinpoint and manage their water resources. Water leakage continues to be a problem for utilities around the globe. In the UK alone, on average 151 litres of water is lost each day per property.

According to a report by Ofwat, it is estimated that the UK lost 3,608Ml/d in 2004-2005 due to leakage, Ofwat, as well as water utilities across the UK, are strongly aware of these leakage problems and are actively working on measures to reduce leakage. Leakage reduction targets and enforced sanctions when targets are not met are examples of Ofwat measures that utilities face.

For utilities, the ability to evaluate leakage and loss is critical to avoiding sanctions and penalties.

As utilities look at implementing systems to help with conservation and leak detection efforts, there are several areas where improvements can be made.

Access to accurate meter data that provides a utility with information that can help identify and capture lost revenue is key. And it can also be used to educate customers about water usage. Roughly 75% of domestic customers in England and Wales do not have a water meter, meaning water consumption is not measured.

From 2004 to 2005, just 40% of utility revenue was collected from metered customers. While the number of the metered domestic customers is growing steadily, today there are still many customers billed on the basis of the rateable value of their house or on a council tax rate, regardless of consumption.

Several utilities have started to require water meters for their customers. Thames Water, for example, recently announced that it will require all customers moving house after 2010 to have water meters, which will provide needed meter data over the coming years.

Metering plays a significant role in demand management. It can make customers more sensitive to their usage and the polluted water that is returned to the environment. In order to change use habits, relevant data must be presented to permit informed behaviour.

Metering is also a way to efficiently address leakage beyond the core distribution system, especially at a customer's residence. Utilities can identify major changes in usage that often reveal leakage, as well as educate customers about conservation.

Data technologies
As utilities install more meters, they should also consider the adoption of meter data collection technologies. These help ensure data is collected regularly within defined reading cycles, or when an exceptional event occurs - a customer moves, for instance.

AMR allows for faster, safer and more accurate reading than traditional manual reads.

It is often more cost-effective to install a meter within a residence than digging a meter pit, which can cost up to £150. Including an AMR system as part of the installation will overcome the issue of access.

AMR provides accurate and correct data in a timely manner, whether monthly or more frequently, and allows utilities to increase revenues while decreasing costs and the need for estimated reads.

It also helps address conservation and operational initiatives. By implementing an AMR system, water utilities improve customer service by identifying behind-the-meter leaks and reducing waste, thus lowering customer bills. And they can identify ways customers can better conserve resources and reduce costs.

Actual customer usage data from AMR solutions provides utilities and their customers with information to help them make informed choices for managing water resources and changing consumption habits.

Utilities can also improve customer satisfaction through AMR by eliminating the need to access a customer's property to read the meter and increasing the accuracy of customer bills.

Accelerated reading
Some water utilities are also expecting that smart-metering trends that are occurring on the electricity and gas side of the utility business will cause accelerated reading cycles for water as well. AMR is a first step in addressing these trends, as many of the AMR components will form the backbone of a smart-metering system.

Many utilities that have implemented AMR systems are combining this technology with additional products to address leak detection.

Water utilities are also looking at implementing advanced leak-detection systems for distribution channels in addition to metering. These combine leak detecting sensors to monitor the full distribution system, even with underground pipeline systems, to pinpoint the location and severity of leaks. Data from these systems is collected as part of the meter-reading process, providing additional information on leakage within the distribution system, not just behind the meter.

This allows the utility to understand where within the pipeline the leak exists and how best to fix problems. A system that provides information on the probability of leaks within the distribution network will ensure that manpower is dispatched to locations most likely to be experiencing leakage.

Utilities have several options in addressing conservation and leak detection issues. By building a scalable system that works together at every level - from the meter to the distribution channel - utilities can build a long-term solution for addressing leakage.

Meters with AMR and leak detection systems are all part of an overall meter data management system that can be customised to meet the individual needs of the utility.

Berry Drijsen is senior international product marketing manager at Itron.
T: +31 20 60 65 225, E: berry.drijsen@itron.com

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