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For 20 years, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has been viewed primarily as a cost-efficient meter-reading resource — a key driver behind water utility ROI. More recently, however, utility operations increasingly rely upon AMI capabilities to cope with broader issues ranging from water scarcity to aging infrastructure. Here’s how an expanded view of AMI can benefit water utilities in both the short and long term.

If you build it, they will expand it

While most water utilities with AMI infrastructure rely upon it to automate and refine the accuracy of their meter reading and billing functions, others are also using it to look deeper into their distribution networks, gain more insight into how it operates, and predict how to operate it more efficiently. To these thought leaders, the central value of AMI is no longer constrained to ‘metering’, but rather expanded over a broader scope of ‘management’ to future-proof their infrastructure.

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With any given meter actively engaging the AMI network for only a fraction of a second each hour, it is easy to harness the remaining network availability to capture a wider variety of operational decision-making data and execute control signals to remotely actuated equipment. This can help progressive utilities improve overall efficiency in terms of deeper insight into energy use, better hardware utilization, better allocation of labor, and closer monitoring of water-quality issues. Smart infrastructure solutions also open greater opportunities for system automation to optimize system operating expenses (OPEX).

Taking a big-picture view

Unlike SCADA systems that work well within the confines of a water treatment plant but are expensive to extend over long distances, AMI infrastructure complemented by affordable endpoints as part of a smart infrastructure solution (also known as Industrial Internet of Things) can satisfy a wide range of distribution system applications cost efficiently. Here are just a few of the ways broader smart infrastructure solutions can be adopted through the use of affordable component investments to reduce OPEX and staffing requirements:

  • Do more with less. Equipping distribution system infrastructure with sensors and instrumentation to identify the highest maintenance priorities can assure the most efficient use of limited support staff.
  • Manage scarce water resources. Using leak detection and pressure monitoring to reduce apparent and real water losses can help to make every drop count during periods of water scarcity.
  • Protect water quality. Linking water quality sensors in the distribution system via the AMI infrastructure can provide timely insights into changing water characteristics such as chlorine residual, turbidity, PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), lead, or distribution byproducts (DBPs), and help to avoid potential penalties for non-compliance.
  • Optimize asset management. Within day-to-day water utility operations, there are many ways to use AMI system capabilities to optimize the use and care of aging infrastructure from the comfort of a central office. Proactive leak detection — throughout the greater distribution network — can prevent small, hidden leaks from becoming highly visible emergencies. Monitoring and managing pipeline pressures to identify potential problem areas and respond with appropriate maintenance or flow control interventions can minimize stresses on older infrastructure, reduce OPEX, and maximize the long-term value of infrastructure investments.
  • Make communication a two-way street. An advantage of using an AMI network with two-way communication as the backbone of water distribution system monitoring and control is in reducing the labor costs of manual interventions. It can automate both the red flagging of performance changes that require intervention and the adjustment of pressure-reducing valves, booster pumps, or zone shutoff valves from a central location.

Technical considerations for public vs. private networks

Smart infrastructure, smart networks, and communications technologies each carry different technical performance implications. AMI vendors that offer both RF and cellular network options can offer more appropriate choices for specific situations. While each technology implementation has its pluses and minuses, the issue of privately owned versus public AMI network infrastructure often comes down to a question of control.

With public cellular networks, much of the revenue and emphasis is typically focused on smartphone service. This means that restoration of AMI networks might be a lower priority for the cellular provider, which could cause delays in rebooting AMI networks after a major weather or seismic event severely damages cellular service. In any case, it will not give the water utility any opportunity to speed up the process. In the case of cellular communications networks shared among many competing resources, for example, similar questions about priorities can revolve around the bandwidth available on a shared network. Scalable AMI network infrastructure dedicated specifically to one utility’s or one city’s use and designed to be resilient in severe weather has proved to be a winning combination under stressful conditions.

Network upgrades raise another aspect of control. As public cellular providers discontinue 2G and 3G communications networks, individual AMI meters and other endpoints dedicated to that very specific technology will become obsolete. Private networks that can upgrade boards in just a few data collection units (DCUs), instead of tens of thousands of individual meter endpoints, will make it easier and less expensive to grow along with upgraded network technology and resist obsolescence.

Getting ‘smarter’ about expanding applications

For years, sharp water distribution operators running manually measured and controlled infrastructure have used system insight and experience to manage distribution infrastructure as a hands-on activity. Today, visionary water utilities are implementing AMI applications that reach beyond the ‘cash register’ mentality of meter reading/billing and enable them to exploit the two-way communication backbone of AMI networks. The scalability of AMI systems across millions of endpoints allows these operators to be more proactive and more efficient in tracking, analyzing, and executing their time-tested insights and strategies than they could be with piecemeal pressure, leak detection, or flow-control capabilities. In fact, expanded AMI applications are even paying dividends in terms of shared infrastructure for integrated utility applications.

 This article first appeared on the Water Online website in May 2020

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