It’s difficult to accurately assess how much of the water that is pumped into a utility’s distribution system is lost before it is metered, but the Environmental Protection Agency puts the number at 16%, and some experts’ estimates are even higher. In any case, there are basically two ways to lose water before it is metered. One is through leaks in the distribution system, called real losses. The other is through water that is consumed but not paid for, called apparent losses.
Real losses drive up production costs and force water utilities to pump more water than customers need. This drives up the costs of operations by forcing the utility to pour money into infrastructure repairs.
But apparent losses caused by inaccurate meters, theft, or billing problems occur at the final retail cost of water. They reduce your ability to collect all the revenue owed and so directly affect the bottom line. The combined annual financial impact of real and apparent losses in utility operations as reported in a dataset compiled by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Water Loss Control Committee.
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Three Causes of Apparent Loss
According to AWWA, there are three causes of apparent loss in water distribution:
1: Unauthorized consumption
In a word, theft. Stealing water is easier to control in utilities that have implemented advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) because the data collected by AMI can be analyzed to identify suspicious patterns of consumption. In addition, the AMI system can send the utility a tamper alert if a customer tries to disconnect or route around a meter.
2: Data handling errors
Meter reading, billing, and archiving errors contribute to apparent water losses by reducing the amount of revenue collected by the utility. AMI solutions, which read meters automatically, combined with Customer Information Systems and Meter Data Management to ensure the integrity of data used for billing by reducing the errors that occur when data is provided by meter readers or entered manually into the billing system.
3: Inaccurate meters
Meters that are not registering properly, either because they are failing or improperly sized, are a source of apparent water loss that is difficult to quantify without analytics. Short of pulling meters out and bench-testing them, it is difficult to determine if they are dying or decaying. Plus, when meters are incorrectly sized for the type of service needed (commercial or residential, or vice-versa), they will erroneously register water usage.
Role of Analytics
Water utilities can use a variety of analytics approaches to recover top-line revenue. One way is to analyze data to identify dying meters that are under-registering water usage.
These meters are usually never found unless they fail. And although most utilities conduct periodic meter replacement programs, faulty or incorrectly sized meters may be in place for years, which results in the utility not collecting all its revenues.
Plus, meter replacement programs conducted on regular schedules do not differentiate between good and bad meters. This means that utilities replacing meters on a regular schedule are needlessly swapping out good meters along with bad ones, at the utility’s expense. Analytics programs can pinpoint bad or incorrectly sized meters, allowing utilities to find faulty meters faster and take a more surgical approach to meter replacement.
To properly identify dying or decaying meters, the apparent water loss detection software analyzes historic AMI data and then ongoing monthly water-use data. This establishes a baseline for each meter, after which irregularities from the pattern are identified through proprietary algorithms and ongoing analyses.
More Ways to Save
Analytics can ferret out other types of revenue and customer-service improvements. The intelligence derived from analyzing payment patterns, for instance, can help you calculate the risk of specific customers defaulting on payments. This analysis allows development of proactive outreach to at-risk customers with special programs designed to reduce the number of cut-offs and delinquent payments.
Utilities can also analyze AMI data to handle tasks such as individualizing communications about conservation programs, evaluating rate structures, identifying ways to save on energy used to produce water and proactively notifying customers when their water heaters develop leaks.
Simply put, by including analytics as an integral component of AMI strategy, water utilities can reduce apparent and real water losses. Data collected through AMI provides the actionable intelligence necessary to drive revenues, operational efficiencies and customer satisfaction, all the while minimizing risks and increasing financial resilience.