Mar 22 2023

Public Water Utilities Deploy Smart Meters for Cloud-Based Data Analytics

Smart water solutions improve sustainability, operational efficiency and resilience.

The city of Houston is no stranger to severe weather, from hurricanes that cause flooding and ice storms that freeze and break water lines to last summer’s drought caused by record-setting heat.

An early adopter of smart meters, Houston Public Works plans to install new smart sensors throughout its community to better track water usage and monitor and maintain the health of its water distribution system, including detecting leaks. The agency will also deploy sensors to measure stormwater and use data analytics tools to predict flooding that could contaminate the water supply.

The goal is to reduce water waste and ensure the community has access to an ample supply of clean water, says Matthew Thomas, formerly Houston Public Works’ assistant director of customer account services.

“This is about water conservation and resiliency,” he says. “We’ve got a precious resource and we’ve got to manage every drop of it. And secondarily, during major events, it’s about making sure this system will hold up for our citizens.”

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Cities and water utility districts are investing in cloud computing solutions and smart meters to remotely measure water consumption and detect leaks at homes and businesses. They also are installing smart sensors for the real-time monitoring of their water supply systems, and in some cases, their wastewater treatment plants and stormwater operations too.

The technology automates the once-manual task of reading meters, and through data analytics, cities and water utilities can better manage their water supply infrastructure.

They can identify and resolve problems faster, eliminate water theft, perform preventive maintenance, and improve customer service and engagement, resulting in increased water savings and optimized system performance, says Nikola Ristivojevich, senior analyst at IDC’s Government Health and Insights practice.

“It creates water efficiency and system efficiency,” he says. 

EXPLORE: IT modernization for state and local government in 2023. 

Smart Meter Analytics and the Cloud

Houston Public Works currently operates a hybrid water metering system that incorporates technology from 1998 and 2010. Today, 70 percent of the city’s homes and businesses use 13-year-old automated metering infrastructure technology, which wirelessly transmits meter readings to the city’s communications network.

The remaining 30 percent are on older automated meter reading technology, which requires staff to drive down streets and wirelessly capture meter readings on notebook computers. Combined, that data is uploaded to internal servers and backed up on Amazon Web Services (AWS), says Thomas, who retired from Houston Public Works recently.

Because metering technology only lasts 15 to 20 years, Houston Public Works has embarked on a five-year quest to install new smart devices in every home and business with new capabilities that measure water pressure and temperature. For the first time, the agency will also install smart sensors throughout its water distribution infrastructure and wastewater and stormwater operations.

Houston recently hired a smart utility vendor for cloud-based software and storage. Migrating to a Software as a Service solution simplifies IT management and improves redundancy and security, Thomas says.

The SaaS tool allows Houston Public Works to centrally monitor the sensors and access dashboards that provide reports on customer water usage, leaks, water pressure readings and other data in nearly real time.

DISCOVER: Which cloud strategy is right for state and local agencies?

Smart sensors and data analytics will allow the city to more quickly detect and fix problems, such as water main leaks that cause water pressure to drop, Thomas says.

“It helps us know exactly what’s happening with our system,” he says. 

Houston Public Works has also partnered with Microsoft Azure to use its cloud-based data analytics tools to gain more insights on sensor data. The agency will create a digital twin, a real-time digital representation of its infrastructure, and run models to find ways to operate more efficiently and build more resiliency into its systems, Thomas says.

The department is working with Azure to create a model that analyzes rainfall, predicts flooding and allows city officials to warn residents. Public Works is installing sensors that measure water flow rates in drainage ditches and water levels at highway underpasses.

“We will be able to predict, based on rainfall and water velocity, how quickly an area downstream will potentially flood,” he says.


The number of new smart water meters and sensors that Houston Public Works will deploy over the next five years

Source: Matthew Thomas

Utility Management Upgrades Benefit Customers

Most water districts stagger the expense of smart meters by implementing in phases. In New Mexico, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority has been upgrading its 214,000 customers to smart meters since 2011. So far, it has installed advanced metering infrastructure technology for 70 percent of its users and plans to migrate the remaining 30 percent by 2025.

The utility’s 24 technicians, equipped with Apple iPad devices, install about 2,500 new smart meters a month and use the mobile devices to configure the meters, says Juaquin Zamora, the utility’s IT systems administrator in charge of AMI.

The smart meters transmit data hourly over the water authority’s wireless communications network, built with Verizon Wireless modems that use a private radio frequency.

Staffers view water usage and system reports through a combination of its smart meter vendor’s cloud-based software and an on-premises database and analytics tool, Zamora says.

The analytics tool produces regular reports that list accounts with continuous water usage and alerts staff of anomalies, such as accounts that have shown no water consumption for several months, he says.

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The technicians investigate the issues and use the iPad devices to take photos and file reports. They look for evidence of meter tampering, and for homes with continuous usage, they help residents troubleshoot and look for the cause of leaks, Zamora says.

“There are many benefits. We can measure smarter and analyze easier. We can improve revenue, increase efficiency, communicate better and resolve customer inquiries a lot quicker,” he says.   

Customers can log on to a portal to see their water usage and set alerts to notify them of spikes in usage. The water authority also has begun to install smart sensors in its infrastructure to proactively measure and manage water pressure so staff can resolve issues before customers complain, he says.

LEARN ABOUT: How smart tech projects support communities.

Fighting Drought with Smart Technologies

As water districts undergo digital transformation through smart sensors, they must also change internal business processes to take full advantage of the technology, Ristivojevich says.

In drought-stricken California, the Moulton Niguel Water District did just that by building a collaborative, data-driven, customer-focused culture, says Joone Kim-Lopez, the district’s general manager.

MNWD, which serves 170,000 customers in southern Orange County, completed a five-year rollout of smart meters in early 2022. The district hired a team of data scientists to make sense of the data generated, launched a portal to better inform customers and created a customer engagement team that uses the data to advise residents on how to better conserve water.

To fully leverage the data, the IT department built an IT infrastructure to handle and process it, says Matthew Brown, the utility’s information systems officer.

First, MNWD’s communications network, which uses Verizon Wireless’ cellular connections, transmits meter readings to the utility’s smart meter vendor’s cloud storage. MNWD replicates the data to AWS, and over a cloud-based data warehouse, the data scientists produce insights for the staff, he says.

Matthew Thomas
This is about water conservation and resiliency.”

Matthew Thomas Assistant Director of Customer Account Services, Houston Public Works

The data scientists have built dashboards, providing operations and field management staff with reports on water loss, water pressure and meters that have not reported recently, says Drew Atwater, the district’s deputy general manager.

“If there are anomalies, they can send out work orders and have staff fix issues in a timelier manner,” he says. 

The data scientists use open-source data analytics tools to produce reports. Sometimes, they do ad hoc queries and download a subset of data onto their high-end Dell laptops or Dell storage hardware to crunch numbers on-premises, Brown says.

Overall, the technology has allowed MNWD to reduce water loss and better manage its water distribution system while helping customers become more efficient and save money on their water bills, Atwater says.

“It’s allowed us to become smarter and more effective and make better decisions,” Kim-Lopez says.

Image by john Lanuza

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