Connecting Waterpeople

Smart water network innovations: getting ahead of the curve

  • Smart water network innovations: getting ahead of the curve
  • By Mary Shafer. 

About the entity

SUBECA
When Hank McCarrick founded Subeca (originally called Secosys) back in 2008, his vision was clear: Develop ways to support a new way of thinking about the most treasured commodity on earth…water.
Schneider Electric
Idrica

Themes

As upward pressure on public agency services costs—cities, water agencies, etc. continues to increase, utilities must get smarter. Progressive leaders are looking for forward-thinking Smart City / Smart Agency initiatives. These include scalable communications networks with open architecture that can grow with their communities.

Water management is no exception. Solutions that employ such Smart City networks, while helping develop and leverage partnerships between water suppliers and their customers, will reap the most benefit now and into the future. One such solution has pioneered several innovative features that make it deserving of a closer look.

Two Ways Are Better Than One

 “Smart communications grids” are those that leverage digital technology to improve infrastructure, asset management, environmental, financial, and social aspects of urban life. Included in this category are open, “smart” water networks, the wave of the future. The innovations forming this wave are already making a splash.

According to TechRepublic’s Smart Cities Cheat Sheet , “The International Data Corporation (IDC) defines smart city development as the use of smart initiatives combined to leverage technology investments across an entire city, with common platforms increasing efficiency, data being shared across systems, and IT investments tied to smart missions.”

Certainly, water system management is one of those areas ripe—if not overdue—for true smart initiatives. When Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) technology debuted in the mid-1980s and rapidly proliferated through the 1990s, it was a boon for utilities and water management agencies. But that’s yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s challenges.

Now, the world is becoming more urban. 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by mid-century. It’s time the one-way benefit of AMR is replaced by modern technology that connects, engages and empowers both water providers and end users. Today’s fast-moving agencies require a revolutionary meter monitoring/valve control solution that benefits both utilities and their customers.

Specialize, Integrate, Optimize

Part of such a system would include the recognition that—with rapid and ever-changing cyber technologies—agencies are not in the position to own and maintain the kind of large, robust communications networks needed to power Smart Cities. They need instead to work with vendors who, while fully understanding the technologies they will need to work in concert with, specialize in their area of expertise and leave the rest to experts in their respective fields.

As cited in the Water Online article, “Smart Water Networks and the Choices Ahead,” “Historically, a water utility would select a vendor to provide both the metering technology and the communication network infrastructure. While this approach had the benefit of a single point of contact responsible for delivery of an entire system, it didn’t take into account all lifetime cost-of-ownership factors, or the possible redundancy that was created due to overlapping communication systems within a single municipality or geographic region.”

Such oversights are no longer sustainable. Cities that are truly smart will retain or create their independence from proprietary networks that reduce their agility in staying ahead of the curve. They must be able to anticipate and implement best-in-class communications capabilities, and the best adjunct solutions that will use those networks.

Water management systems are no exception.

A Sparkling Vision of the Future

Ideally, a smart water network would provide affordable, easily deployed hardware that harnesses the power and immediacy of third-party, cutting-edge telecommunications. This would enable access to infrastructure and wireless capabilities that may already be part of the grid, or are slated for future installation.

Due diligence concerning available options is critical to making a sound investment in an agency’s future. Without it, an agency intent on positioning itself well for future growth could instead find itself trapped in a system of proprietary technologies that only perform well together, but not in concert with others outside their ecosystem.

The ideal smart water network would not only perform remote meter reading, but also allow utilities and their customers access to real-time data on water usage, potential leaks, and other actionable information. A bonus would be the ability of the customer to remotely close a valve, shutting down suspected leaks until they can be assessed or—in the case of a major break—mitigating loss until permanent repairs can be made. In addition, it would provide the handling of other IoT applications over the same network, to extend levels and capabilities of system management.

All these robust features would provide cost savings to providers by eliminating the need for multiple data handling systems, drive-by or touch meter reading, most search-and-assess field trips, and a host of other functions now handled by direct and costly labor deployment. Ultimately, such a network would create an important and necessary partnership between providers and customers in meeting tomorrow’s ever-growing demand for water conservation.

Today’s Customers Demand More

With more computing power in their pockets than the first Apollo moon landing’s guidance system had, modern Americans have come to expect immediate, two-way communication with product and service providers.

American consumers are not shy about using social media and the Internet to express unhappiness with dashed expectations, or to get help with needed information. They are also beginning to understand that cyber-communication technology can also help them proactively connect with commodity service providers, previously difficult or impossible to reach.

Millennials and every generation to follow will soon be demanding more information about—and control over—their potable water usage.

The Internet of Things (IoT) now powers everything from mobile banking to telecommuting. The Covid-19 outbreak has forced all generations to become conversant with cyber-technologies if they want to stay in touch. These newly tech-savvy citizens will soon start wondering aloud why they must still put up with being ambushed by unexpected bills for massive usage spikes spurred by leaks that were completely unknown to them and/or out of their control.

They will be expecting utilities to implement their on-demand access to data that can help them anticipate and even control their usage, and to provide early warning of leaks before they become costly and damaging. Despite increasing talk about conservation, end-users generally remain ill-equipped to participate in the process.

Measurable Inhouse Benefits, Too

Water customers aren’t the only ones who would benefit from such technology. Municipal utilities, water authorities, and agencies looking for significant, long-term cost efficiencies can leverage IoT by replacing aging Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) hardware with Advanced Metering Infrastructure/Internet of Things (AMIoT) solutions. These are innovative metering technology that interfaces with new local Edge Networks, remotely reporting back to the water authority and empowering the customer like never before.

Edge Networks are those whose communications take place on the ground, without having to engage the Internet—a cloudless solution. More savings could be realized if that Edge Network consists of utility-owned, Bluetooth-powered communication lines that gather local signals before bouncing them over to the telecom-owned RF or cellular grid. Keeping the signal off such proprietary infrastructure until absolutely necessary would not only speed up real-time data transmission, it would drastically reduce expensive telecom provider bandwidth usage.

It’s important to mention that an “edge-capable” smart meter could communicate directly with edge-capable appliances. For example, an edge-capable irrigation controller uses the smart meter as a sensor, to validate proper irrigation.

This unique technology would create a path for device providers to develop “smart water” home appliances. The water meter—once a one-trick pony—could then become a critical sensor that enables edge machine-to-machine communications, much like Nest consumer level technology.

Smart water networks could also facilitate artificial intelligence (AI)-driven, 24/7 guardians against losses due to unplanned, unauthorized, non-revenue water loss. Let’s take a look at this growing problem in municipal water systems:

Sobering Statistics About Leakage Loss

According to a 2018 study by Utah State University that surveyed nearly 200,000 miles of water pipelines in more than 300 municipalities in the United States and Canada, serving more than 14 percent of the two countries’ total population:

  • Between 2012 and 2018, overall water main break rates increased by 27 percent, from 11.0 to 14.0 breaks/100 miles/year.
  • More concerning is that breakage rates of cast iron and asbestos cement pipe—which make up 41 percent of the installed water mains in the U.S. and Canada—have increased by more than 40 percent over those six years.
  • 82 percent of cast iron pipes are more than 50 years old, and experiencing a 46 percent increase in break rates.
  • Smaller utilities have two times more main breaks than large utilities.
  • Nationwide, one mile of installed water main serves 308 people.
  • The average age of failing water mains is approximately 50 years.
  • Over 16 percent of North America’s underground water infrastructure is past its design service life.
  • Of more than 200 utilities reporting water loss value, estimated average water loss to leakage is 10 percent, but some areas are reaching averages as high as 20-30 percent (including authorized losses).

It’s clear that non-revenue water is taking a serious bite out of operating budgets, both through leakage loss and the costs of infrastructure repair and replacement. But is Smart City technology really the solution?

It appears so. That previously mentioned IDC report noted that around the world, smart city technology spending reached $80 billion in 2016, expected to grow to $135 billion by 2021. With increased urbanization, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which this trend will not continue for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, those with control over the purse strings recognize the economies of scale and efficiencies to be achieved through bundling together the digitization of many municipal functions. That’s exactly what Smart City technology makes possible.

Due Diligence, Smart Choices

Having established Smart City technology as the direction for future development, the next logical question for utility managers to consider would be which specific technologies to embrace. The right choices now will see savvy water authorities reaping the benefits of staying ahead of the curve, with technologies poised for extensibility and scalability. Those who skimp on due diligence in discovering the right solutions will find themselves saddled with an installed base of quickly outmoded, proprietary equipment and distribution components.

Aside from primary water-related functions, informed technology specifiers will understand the importance of choosing an AMIoT (not just limited AMI) water monitoring and reporting system that:

  1. integrates smoothly with both utility enterprise systems and wider Smart City systems
  2. is designed to grow with the water distribution system itself
  3. supports diverse, ubiquitous and user-friendly monitoring and control interfaces
  4. is backed by responsive technical support, from installation to deployment to troubleshooting

A significant bonus would be a system that can easily piggyback on existing infrastructure. This would save huge amounts of time and money, compared to others that require old equipment removal. If the new system is modular, it can be installed on an as-needed basis to replace old AMR and manual-read meter registers. This way, managers can decide whether it’s more efficient and cost-effective to retrofit entire blocks at a time, or just on an individual basis.

Equally as important to the agility of the physical equipment, new IoT systems should generate data that doesn’t simply replace that from existing systems, but surpasses it in richness and usability. Imagine, for instance, having 24/7 real-time data on water line leaks, without having to wait for seasonal deployment of pipe inspection and repair crews; completely possible with smart metering. Such components would continue to be a vital part of a healthy, robust water distribution and monitoring system, far into the future.

Of course, any serious candidate for such deployments must be designed to the highest standards of security. Though managers will want an open architecture system to allow for growth and extensibility, that openness must be closely guarded against external cyber-invasion, hacking and malware.

A Serious Contender

One potential comprehensive solution for water providers to consider for upgrading their current water metering to meet Smart City standards, now and into the future, is the Subeca Series Water Management System.

This three-component, five-function system forms a complete, end-to-end water metering network that provides utility and customer monitoring and control interfaces like no other. The control software offers not just granular water usage information, but also continuous real-time data and alerts for utilities and their customers, leak detection, and first-of-its-kind, two-way communication for customer-shared remote valve control.

Because it’s built on open architecture, the Subeca System integrates quickly and easily with any existing IoT infrastructure, or expands into new IoT applications. Based entirely on wireless standards meeting stringent ISO/IEC 27001 requirements for information security management, this system allows agility rather than locking into random, proprietary technology that could hinder future growth and robustness. In fact, once it’s installed, the agency then owns an open LoRa IoT network that can be used for more than 200 other Smart City applications.

The Complete Subeca System Comprises:

  1. Subeca Pin™
    The core data collection component, Subeca Pin is a Bluetooth register that replaces existing meter registers. It collects and transmits data locally (“nearcasting”) to a nearby transmission point, through which it can also receive remote instructions to open or close a valve. This is where the edge network is initiated.
  2. Subeca Link™
    The previously mentioned data transmission point, Subeca Link uses Radio Frequency (RF) signals to collect and transmit data from nearby Pins, to and from your agency’s LoRa Gateway. From there, data packets are transmitted to and from your utility’s (central) data analysis and control center, and your customers’ (distributed) app and dashboard.
  3. Subeca Engage™
    Subeca Engage software is the eyes and brains behind the System, logging, analyzing and parsing data behind the scenes. It provides a cloud-based, feature-packed, interactive user dashboard. It’s accessible via computers or mobile devices by utility staff and customers, to view data and manage feature settings and Pin functions for valve control.

How the Subeca System Works

01. Collect meter data:

Subeca Pin, a Bluetooth Register, replaces the register on existing meters. Every 900 milliseconds, the Pin transmits meter data to the consumer (when within Bluetooth range) and to the Subeca Link.

02. Transmit meter data:

Subeca Link, a Bluetooth-to-LoRa Bridge, takes this IoT data from the Pins that are on up to 10 nearby meters, and transmits this data to the secure AWS data cloud every 15 minutes, via an IoT LoRa network.

03. LoRa network installed:

Subeca installs a Comcast MachineQ LoRa gateway system to support this data transmission. Once installed, this MachineQ system can support over 200 other IoT applications as well.

04. Access & use meter data:

Data is sent to the Subeca Engage platform and dashboard, which enables utilities and end users to get real-time data, helpful alerts, incredible control and much more.

05. 2-way communication:

Commands can be sent from Engage (full agency dashboard or end user mobile app) back to the Link, which can open or close a motorized, electrically-actuated ball valve.

Conservation Compliant

One area in which Smart Meters such as Subeca’s stand head-and-shoulders above other water management solutions is in water conservation. In an article in Government Technology magazine (https://www.govtech.com/fs/data/Are-IoT-Enabled-Smart-Meters-the-Next-Step-for-Utility-Providers.html), Thomas Kelly—strategic coordinator for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in Maryland, and chair of the American Water Works Association Meter Standards Committee—said, “Within the last decade, water has really come into its own as getting the recognition that it deserves for the precious resource that it is. We have more and more people putting increasing demands on the same amount of water,” he added. “And what we’ve got is what we’ve got.”

With this relatively recent recognition of water as a limited resource, and with climate change wreaking havoc on previously accepted assumptions about water availability, conservation has climbed the ladder of public perception to a prominent level it will likely hold from here on. Public policy and governmental legislation reflect this. Though prevailing political upheaval in Washington, D.C., has thrown federal conservation policy into flux, many states are taking their own steps toward conserving natural resources.

In most such environment-related topics, California has tended to take the lead in studying, formulating and implementing pioneering legislation. The state sets the bar for standards. For this reason, those responsible for implementing such policies design to California standards in most environmental regulation. This is usually a safe bet for nationwide compliance by developers of any equipment or technology.

California Strong

This is the case with the Subeca Water Management System. All technology integrated in the Subeca System was designed to meet California’s most recent water conservation standards, the most stringent to date.

These bills, SB 606 and AB 1668—signed into law in May of 2018, and whose regulatory standards go into effect no later than June 20, 2022—establish specific regulatory requirements for urban and agricultural water suppliers. Specifically, they call for the creation of new urban efficiency standards for indoor use, outdoor use, and water lost to leaks.

They also require urban water agencies—starting in November, 2023—to annually calculate their own objectives. Their calculations must be based on water needed in their service areas for efficient indoor and outdoor residential use, as well as commercial, industrial and institutional (CII) irrigation, and on reasonable amounts of system water loss. Highly accurate meters will be required for this, and urban water suppliers who fail to provide this information on deadline will not qualify for water grants and loans.

Urban water agencies in California are required by these bills to meet their stated water use objectives. Those failing to do so may be subject to enforcement by the State Water Board, which could issue informational orders until 2025, when they will be empowered to issue conservation orders, fines, etc.

To begin, the indoor water use standard will be 55 Gallons Per Capita Per Day (GPCD) until January, 2025. The standard will become stronger over time, decreasing to 50 GPCD in January 2030 and 45 GPCD in 2035. This usage is aggregated across population in an urban water supplier’s service area, not calculated to individual households. The outdoor use standard will be based on land cover, climate and other factors, and will be adopted by June, 2022. The water leaks standard will be set by the Board, based on prior legislation (SB 555, 2015) and will take effect by July of 2020.

Obviously, these deadlines aren’t far away, and that for the leak standard is nearly here. Municipalities would do well to specify AMIoT-type smart water metering and monitoring systems sooner rather than later, to remain compliant in California. Further, with the burden inevitably on the end user to manage their water use, an AMIoT solution engages and empowers that user far beyond standard AMI applications. Other states—especially those in the arid West—are sure to follow with similar legislation.

In the case of monitoring leak losses especially, there is ample motivation to stay ahead of the curve in adopting smart water management systems. This is particularly true in large agencies, where significant economies of scale can be realized, and penalties for not meeting standards are the most painful.

Knowledge Is Power

It has always been true that information is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Subeca has developed its Smart Water Management System to empower both water authorities and their customers through the use of IoT technology to increase the granularity of data to control water usage.

Though due diligence is required and no one system will be right for every agency, AMIoT technology is a sound choice for many water purveyors to get and stay ahead of the curve in helping to create their own Smart City.