Olivier Pauzet from Sierra Wireless discusses how the new generation of smart water meters can bring benefits to all
A new generation of smart water meters using cellular wireless connectivity will not only make it easier for customers to manage their water consumption, but also provide water companies with valuable insights into leaks that can cause serious damage and lost revenue.
With such huge and complex networks of pipes and connections, it is no surprise that there is some leakage from the water mains supplying homes and businesses. But it is staggering that over three billion litres are lost every day in England and Wales alone, according to estimates by the water industry regulator, OFWAT.
Water utilities have acknowledged this problem for some time. Massive investments have been made into improving water supply systems that are often a hundred or more years old. OFWAT is also making sure the water companies keep on top of the issue, requiring tough water leakage reduction plans and targets to be included in their business plans for the next five years.
Under pressure to do more, water companies are considering how smart wireless connected water meters could help in winning the battle of reducing non-revenue water.
Smart water meters are very different to those designed to monitor power consumption. Unlike an electricity meter, there is no inbuilt power, so the unit must be designed to consume as little power as possible. This means the meter will be off nearly all the time, transmitting a reading once every 24 hours.
Ensuring easy access to the meter is crucial. Lower power radio frequency emitters are one solution but technicians still need to walk or drive by each meter to take a reading. Clearly this isn’t going to work for collecting daily readings.
This is one factor that makes cellular critical to how smart water meters are rolled out. Modern cellular networks have almost universal reach and can provide effective and efficient two-way communication between utilities and water meters. This allows utilities to take meter readings remotely, more frequently and, as the no longer need to send out staff to read the meters, at a much lower cost.
The wireless module technology now being incorporated into smart water meters takes advantage of new developments in processor design. This enables the cellular wireless module to be smaller than before, operate for low power consumption, and still have the capacity to run specialist firmware. The modules also enable the smart water meter to be updated over the air, avoiding the cost and hassle of having to replace hardware components or the entire meter to improve the firmware or apply security patches – a key consideration for critical infrastructure protection and customer privacy.
Water companies can take advantage of proven software and platforms that already support millions of devices, and employ strong encryption, secure connectivity, and secure access mechanisms to keep the network and customer data safe. Mobile operators who provide the cellular infrastructure are working with equipment vendors to enable smart water meters to be seamlessly integrated with back end management, billing and remote management systems. The utility companies also don’t need to build their own meter communications network and can piggyback on existing networks that are being continually improved by the mobile operators.
With cellular infrastructure making smart water metering technically feasible, the benefits for consumers and water companies become clear.
Rather than waiting weeks or even months to provide water usage data, a smart water meter supplies more immediate information, allowing consumers to better understand and monitor water consumption daily. Unknowns such as leaks, breaks and other inefficiencies can be identified far more quickly, saving water and money. With greater access, consumers are not only able to more closely monitor and modify behaviours, they are empowered to use the data to identify potential issues early, allowing the utility to detect and repair minor problems before they become major issues.
There are huge operational savings for the water utilities too. More reliable metering and billing means fewer resources are required to field billing inquiries and fix inaccuracies. A network of smarter water meters can also be used to gain more visibility into their operations with advanced analytics providing insights into revenue and quality of customer service.
Today, most governments around the world have not yet mandated investment in smart water meters as has been the case with smart energy infrastructure. The benefits of smart meters in how a precious resource is safeguarded and more efficiently managed should mean smart water metering will become more widely deployed. Indeed one of the UK’s biggest water utilities, Thames Water, is embarking on a project to implement the first smart water meters for UK consumers. As more governments and utilities look for reliable, long-lasting solutions that can be deployed quickly and cost-effectively, cellular technology is poised to play a crucial role in the growth of the market.
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