FACING THE MUSIC
There’s no doubt that we continue to live in an increasingly volatile world with respect to water, and at the very least, those conditions will continue to persist throughout the remainder of 2015 and well into 2016. While the drought-stricken southwestern United States is expected to receive some much-needed relief as a result of the continued development of a very strong El Niño condition in the Pacific Ocean,1 the northwestern states will be subject to increasingly fickle precipitation,2 exacerbating an already discordant condition where soil moisture is already below the 30th percentile.3
SINGING THE BLUES
There is not much we can do as individuals or utilities to change climatic variation—except adapt. For the water sector, adapting to this volatility means using less water and being more conscious about our use. In short, we need to improve the efficiency of water use, which requires, as noted in 2010 by Dr. Peter Gleick, “understanding where, when, and why we use water.”4
We as an industry, however, are not particularly good at understanding “where, when and why” we are using water. While that’s a function of a number of things, it is primarily due to a lack of available data. More precisely, it’s the lack of quality data. The data in our water utilities often suffers from a lack of integrity and validation, poor temporal resolution and a lack of geospatial context. How then, are we to get a handle on “where, when and why” we use water, if we do not take account of or measure any of the terms from that phrase?
CHANGING THE TUNE
Not knowing where our water is or how or why it is being used can leave utilities feeling out of tune. Fortunately there are solutions emerging.
Significant advancements in the capability and delivery of technology allow for substantial increases in the integrity, granularity, frequency and context of water use data. With Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), Smart Grid Customer Information Systems, and integrated financial and consumption presentment via web and mobile-enabled tools, both utilities and customers can finally understand water in real context.
Prior to the advent of these tools, a utility customer was not afforded the opportunity to correlate their water usage—particularly water intensive activity—to their monthly water bill in a timely fashion. Today, a customer can be alerted instantly that their use has the potential to impact the cost of their water service. They can also be informed that they may have a leak, backflow or other abnormal condition. With a geospatial component added to the mix, customers can understand their consumption in the context of their neighborhood, and see the impact of local temperature and precipitation events have on their water use.
For utilities, knowing the “where, when and why” of water use means that we can become better at optimizing our water delivery systems, reducing the costs of power and chemicals, and maximizing the use and extending the life of our available infrastructure.
Most importantly, through a combination of software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery mechanisms and innovative financing and business models, these tools are available to water utilities of any size—not just the largest of utilities.
GIVE ME MONEY (THAT’S WHAT I WANT)
Improving the quality of data for water utilities has often been expressed in terms of saving water and reducing operational costs. While these benefits are real, it is equally important for utilities to use this data to find, maintain and improve revenue.
We know that as much as two-thirds of the unaccounted for water that is reported is actually “apparent losses” as opposed to real losses.5 That is, the majority of our water is lost in our data systems, not our distribution systems. While there is increased focus on water loss, reporting and rectification6—and that is certainly an important aspect of water sustainability—the real impact of these apparent losses is a significant loss of utility revenue. Combined with the effects of voluntary and mandatory conservation, the financial risks for our water utilities remain one of the primary existential threats to economic development.
For a utility, understanding exactly where every drop of water is going and ensuring that all water usage is billed and collected is a vital survival skill. Key elements of maintaining this revenue are knowing the location of meters both physically and logically and knowing their condition at any point in time. This is particularly true of large commercial meters which can represent a significant percentage of the utility’s revenue stream. While many utilities employ a time-based meter upgrade program, in many cases we have seen that meter performance can degrade well in advance of this timeline, resulting in significant losses in billed volumes—as well as increases in reported non-revenue water—with the obvious implications for utility revenue. Relying only on age is not a reliable indicator of meter performance.
For example, take the look at the utility shown to the right. Each circle represents a commercial water meter, with the color indicating the age of the meter. Based on age alone, it would be expected that the green meters—those that are at most 5 years old—would be the best performing and have the greatest accuracy. Unbeknownst to this utility, these relatively new meters had already deteriorated to the point where they were under-registering by over 25 percent, despite their young age. These meters were stealing the utility’s revenue.
Using data to identify which meters are prone to degradation, or in need of replacement is a critical element of financial security for utilities. While a utility cannot replace all meters annually, by using data-driven condition assessments instead of just time-based assessments, utilities can understand the degradation profile of individual meters, replace those critical units and maximize their revenue from all their meters.
SINGING IN HARMONY
Finding harmony as a water provider can be a challenging endeavor. As one of the organizations on the front lines of the impacts of climate change—from resource supply volatility to mandated conservation efforts to customer complaints whenever rate increases are contemplated—utilities can often be found singing the blues. There is, however, tremendous opportunity for technology to improve the situation for our utilities.
FATHOM provides AMI and Meter Data Management (MDM), including our Revenue Assurance analytics, as well as customer presentment tools such as our FATHOM U2You Customer Portal to utilities of all sizes. We help maximize the potential of data for engaging customers in their water use as well as for finding and maintaining utility revenue. Combined with innovative financing options and business models, we can even help provide AMI with no upfront costs. And that keeps us all singing from the same songsheet.
1THE SNOWMAN, THE KID AND SOL, FATHOM Drought Watch Volume 1 Issue 24, 18 September 2015 (https://www.gwfathom.com/download/1574/)
2http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/season_drought.png (accessed 11 November 2015)
3http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/Soilmst_Monitoring/US/Soilmst/Soilmst.shtml# (accessed 11 November 2015)
4Gleick, P., “Roadmap for sustainable water resources in southwestern North America,” PNAS, 14 December 2010 http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1005473107
5Ramli Mattar, “Kahramaa’s vision for non-revenue water reduction”, Water Utility 21, April 2013.
6THE REGULATORY HAMMER, FATHOM Drought Watch Volume 1, Issue 28, 23 October 2015 (https://www.gwfathom.com/download/1539/)