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A recent report on water management in the UK by a House of Lords Select Committee highlighted the current water scarcity status in south-east England. Will an increase in the number of meters installed influence consumer behaviour and water utility practices?

An extract from the report reads: “Over the last 18 months the region has received less than 85% of its average rainfall… At the same time, demand for water is increasing because of population growth, a decreasing average household size and growing use of water-intensive appliances.” All this is having a marked effect on water resource strategy, with many water companies reviewing what can be done to address potential shortfalls that are predicted for the years to come. Utilities are looking at both demand and supply side measures, including changes to domestic water metering policy and plans for alternative methods of supply to be made available.

METERING TO REDUCE CONSUMPTION

Numerous studies conducted in the last few years have shown that metered customers use on average between 10% and 15% less water than their un-metered neighbours. In order to reduce his water usage, the domestic customer needs to have access to easily understood information regarding his consumption. Educating homeowners about their water consumption through the provision of more detailed and easier to understand bills would help to make them more responsible for their water usage.

A scheme by Yarra Valley Water in Australia has successfully cut consumption after the rollout of a new water bill format. Customers now receive more detailed information about their water use for the billing period, how this compares with the average consumption, and how it compares to the same period last year. Current metering technology in the UK is not capable of offering such complex data.

But it is not only consumers who are responsible for keeping an eye on their consumption and taking action to conserve water. After a hot English summer in 1995, when supply was under intense pressure, water companies undertook major steps to reduce system leakage, and these were successful for several years. It seems, however, as if this initiative has been relatively shortlived, and there are signs that leakage is starting to rise again.

WORKING TOGETHER

The solution seemed to be the development of a new meter that could identify the supply pipe leakage which is estimated to account for up to 7% of all water supplied to the network, in conjunction with an effective metering programme for consumers. Severn Trent Metering Services approached seven UK water companies to form a consortium to identify and specify a new intelligent concentric water meter and to bring the product to market. The consortium was composed of a cross section of UK utilities and was hosted by one of the water companies. This meant that the group focused on what was required by the utilities, as opposed to what could be designed by the engineers.

The key areas for discussion were the pricing, the physical design and the performance characteristics required of the meter, in addition to the data output and collection method.

All the consortium utilities agreed that there was a fundamental need for an intelligent meter that could offer leakage detection capabilities, combined with the ability to provide tariff charging options. Peak consumption monitoring was also seen as a key requirement, as both a network demand management tool and a further potential tariff option to control disproportionate consumption by some customers during periods of peak demand.

Leakage detection was relatively easy to specify; utilities needed to know which properties had leaks, how big the leaks were, and when they had started. Tariff options were less easy to define, however, and the preferred tariff structure and its potential implementation were debated extensively. It was ultimately determined that seasonal tariffs, monthly tariffs and peak demand tariffs – along with options for time-of-day tariffs – would all be required within the specification.

DATA COLLECTION

The main challenge in developing the concentric meter was to determine how the radio transmissions from the meter were to be collected. Two main options were considered – fixed network systems and mobile reading systems.

Fixed networks require frequent transmission of data through the entire network, as well as the remote storage and processing of that data. More importantly, fixed networks are not compatible with current UK meter installation patterns, as they require a high density of installed meters in order to be cost effective. Meanwhile mobile reading solutions had only been capable of providing a single reading at the actual time of polling the meter.

The solution was to put intelligence and data storage into the meter itself, allowing the data to be processed at source and releasing the water company from the burden of installing and maintaining a dedicated data collection network.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

The new water meter was launched at the Global Smart Metering for Water Conference in London, and is available as a complete boundary box solution, with the meter pre-installed and ready to go. Meters installed in boundary boxes are ideally located for supply pipe leakage monitoring; unfortunately they are also susceptible to grit damage during installation, so the new meter offers no-moving-part flow measurement.

The new meter has been developed to the specification created by the consortium, and can support on-board data processing and event monitoring. It was designed to work with mobile collecting systems, and provides a far more cost-effective solution in the short to medium term, whilst being ready for fixed network applications once the density of installed meters is ready to support it. Because it is able to process data at source, the meter reduces the dependency on high levels of data traffic and avoids the need for top-heavy systems and the associated problem of data saturation.

The state-of-the-art meter features an integrated radio, and uses an electronic clock and calendar to offer a multitude of tariff options and to provide itemised customer billing information. It has built-in leakage detection features, with detailed leak information and peak demand monitoring.

Real-time high resolution readings are transmitted every 30 seconds to allow time of day tariffs and data logging. The meter also supports a host of network event monitoring functionality that will enable water companies to better manage the network.

METER TAKE-UP

Five hundred of the newly-created meters are currently being manufactured and will have been installed across the country by the time this magazine is distributed. Once installed, the meters will immediately begin monitoring leakage, consumption and peak demand levels, allowing detailed analysis of the stored data to take place as soon as two or three months from now.

Around 10,000 meters will be installed over the coming 12 months as part of the ongoing work of the consortium. During this period the data analysis tools and software systems and data standards will be developed and finalised.

IN SUMMARY

Water shortages are a major issue in the UK, and the situation will get worse unless positive steps are taken to help consumers manage their water usage more economically, and to help water companies identify leaks more quickly. The unprecedented union of water companies joining together to address UK water shortage problems, and to direct a solution, has resulted in the design and testing of new technology for a revolutionary new meter which is available today.

Given the urgency of the situation, will the industry be required to wait until the next OFWAT1 review period in 2009 for the finances to be made available? Or will the crisis in the south and elsewhere in the UK have to become an even bigger problem before water companies will be able to take steps towards deploying intelligent meters on a large scale? Intelligent meter functionality will continue to improve, and to become ever more cost effective, but for the immediate future there is likely to be a cost premium when compared to the most basic of mechanical meters.

There will be arguments against the cost of intelligent metering – but it could be argued that the question is not: “Why should water companies spend extra money on intelligent meters?” but rather: “Why should water companies continue to waste money on basic mechanical meters, with poor long-term accuracy, that are only capable of providing a single reading on the day that you are able to visit them?”