Background: The Business of Water
It was only a matter of time before IoT technology infiltrated water management. Humans have long been improving the process of collecting, sanitizing, distributing, and disposing of water in their communities. From brewing our morning coffee to washing our hands, we are lucky enough to have clean water readily available in pretty much any building. However, other than begrudgingly paying our bills each month, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the systems and companies in place that enable us to have reliable access to such a vital resource. Enter Smart Water Meter Management.
Public water companies first appeared a few centuries ago, but technology has continued to develop to address various needs of water utility companies. A device many homes and business owners are familiar with is the water meter; first developed in the 1850s, water meters now use various mechanical and non-mechanical systems to measure and quantify the flow rate and amount of water in a system.
Water meters serve utility companies (and consumers) in some of the following ways:
- They allow utility companies to control their revenue and justify charges made to customers based on their water usage.
- They enable consumers to be more conscious of their water usage, an increasingly valuable ability in a growing eco-conscious consumer base.
- They can prompt investigations into potential water outages or pipe leaks when pressure or flow rates change unexpectedly.
At the end of the day, utility companies are in the business of making money. Without a smart water meter that enables them to track their water delivery systems, water companies are susceptible to undercharging customers and being blindsided by costly system failures.
Problem: Manual Meter Reading is Confusing, Outdated, and Ineffective
While utility companies understand the power of tracking water usage metrics, it hasn’t always been easy to collect this data from smart water meters quickly and scalably. Even with recent advancements, which we’ll get into shortly, utility companies still employ those commonly called “Meter Readers” to physically go and collect meter data from individual properties. In addition to being extremely tedious and costly, there are other pitfalls to this system:
- Meter Readers are often unable to access the water meter due to weather conditions or the meter’s inaccessible location. This means readers will often have to make return trips, costing utility companies even more for a single read.
- This high spend per reading means companies typically check meters only once a month. This limited access to data drastically limits the power of insights such as usage trends and identifying potential outages.
- Any time you introduce humans into a process, you introduce human error. Glances and rough estimations on a meter level can lead to inaccurately charging customers.
- While customers can monitor their own meters, many find it confusing, causing them to avoid it altogether and potentially feel blindsided when receiving their bill once a month.
In an age where you can unlock your front door from your phone and automate your basic toiletry purchases to appear on your doorstep every month, this doesn’t feel right. However, attempts to digitize this process have not yielded a perfect result. Previous solutions, often referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructures (AMIs), have struggled to reliably deliver large quantities of data, lack intuitive interfaces that make the data useful, and cost far too much to deploy at scale.
Solution: Improve reporting, identify usage trends, and respond in real-time
The power in an Internet of Things solution is in its ability to collect, analyze, and distribute data in a way that no technology has before. This perfectly aligns with the goals of a water utility company: collect data about the amount and rate of water they distribute, analyze total usage and other trends, and distribute the data internally and their customers. A smart water meter solution can offer the following capabilities and benefits:
- Leak detection – Identify small leaks and large pipe bursts in real-time.
- Track event history – Review the history of a specific device, city, or other important attribute and identify trends.
- Preventative maintenance – Use historical data and machine learning to schedule servicing to prevent costly repairs or downtime.
- Custom Alerts – Receive alerts when parameters (temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.) in your system fall outside expected thresholds.
These are just a few of the ways you can directly improve the current process of monitoring and servicing water systems, but layering additional sensors and technology to capture previously inaccessible data can yield further undiscovered benefits.
Technology: Leveraging the power of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs)
To build out an intelligent water meter management solution, you’ll first need to figure out what data you want to collect. This will manifest itself as the sensors you’ll want to integrate. An obvious one would be a flow meter to quantifying the amount of water flowing through your system. However, you may want to integrate other sensors to allow you to monitor other parameters. Additionally, you may want to use the data from these sensors to control your system. For example, you may use a valve actuator to cut-off water supply in critical conditions. The sensors and actuators you choose will ultimately depend on your specific use case, battery life, installation needs, and cost.
The next piece of this puzzle is connectivity. Connecting your sensors to the internet will allow you to monitor and control your entire system of meters, sensors, and actuators remotely. There is a range of connectivity options in the Internet of Things. Still, a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) is the best choice for monitoring a large system of individual sensors optimized for cost and battery life.
Within LPWAN, there are several options, including NB-IoT, LTE-M, LoRA, and Nanosatellites. Again, the best choice will depend on the specific use case.
Lastly, you will need a well-designed mobile or web application that enables people to interact with the system in an intuitive and useful way. Whether you want to automate billing or allow residents to check their water consumption from their phones, the interface brings powerful insights. It is invaluable for the control of your smart water meter system.