Smart Water Meters Beaming Usage Data to Kannapolis

(Published Friday, May 16, 2014. Independent Tribune)

Kannapolis is getting smarter about water meters, installing a system public works staff say will reduce waste and give consumers more information about their water usage.

The City of Kannapolis is in the process of installing a $6 million system of about 17,000 “smart” meters, a hardware support system to transmit data throughout the city and replacements for old meter boxes where the concrete has deteriorated. They have installed about 2,600 meters so far.

Public works director Wilmer Melton said the city can expect to recoup that $6 million price tag in 10 years because of efficiency improvements caused by the system.

He said the system will more accurately measure family and business water consumption, reduce staffing needs and provide the city and users hour-by-hour data on use.

“This will give you a much more accurate consumption at the meter, so we as the city and you as the customer are going to know exactly what the consumption is at your house,” he said.

Aging meters and the need to recover lost water prompted the change, he said. The city has numerous meters that are at least 30 years old.

“They’re not as accurate,” he said.

The city loses about 19 percent of the water in its system, partly because of meter inefficiency. Melton said the new meters will get the city down to around 10 percent, which accounts for normal losses like flushing and water use during fires.

THE SYSTEM

The replacement project comprises the meters, created by Mueller Systems, as well as a network of repeaters and hubs that can communicate with one another and wirelessly transmit data into the cloud. That encrypted data goes to the city and to consumers in the form of a website and smartphone apps.

The transmission system is a “mesh” network, which means that each component can “talk” to one another and transmit data around obstacles, as well as heal itself if one hardware piece goes down.

The most common type of new meter is made of blue and black plastic polymer and stainless steel with a connection to the city water system on one end and a connection to the home on the other. It reads consumption the old-fashioned way -- with magnetic discs that turn a dial.

The new addition is a wireless antenna that transmits usage data to nearby repeaters going up throughout the city. The repeaters -- installed on elevated structures like road signs -- send the meter signals to hubs, which push the information onto the cloud network. From there, it’s accessible by both the city and consumers.

Water resources operations manager David Fargo pulled up a software program on his office computer and clicked through a few homes that are already on the system during a demonstration.

He zeroed in on one that showed constant consumption of more than 10 gallons per hour.

“It shows me that they have some sort of usage there,” he said. “Typically it’s a toilet that’s leaking through the flapper and toilet fills back up a couple times. That’s one way we can diagnose this.”

He also pointed to an “alerts” tab in the software that warns staff of major leaks.

Melton said that same system also will alert residents of potential problems.

“You can get on your cellphone what consumption is going through your meter.” he said. “If there’s a leak, you’re obviously going to see it,” and the resident can then call the public works department to have someone come out and repair it.

BENEFITS

City of Kannapolis environmental outreach coordinator Sharnelle Simpson said the new meter system and corresponding software will allow individuals and families to have a better resolution on their consumption, because the new meters measure by the hour instead of by the month.

“It’s definitely going to be beneficial to water consumption and water conservation because of the options that would now will be available to citizens with the system,” she said.

“Say your bill was a little bit higher than normal,” she explained. “You would be able to log on and say ‘well hmm, remember on April 30 I had a cookout, or I filled up the pool or my kid’s best friend was over and they both took 20-minute showers.’ You’re able to pinpoint those things that you are doing that are increasing your water consumption.”

That will help citizens know where to cut back if they want to save money and conserve water, she said.

The meter system also will promote economic development, Melton said, because it will give the city better data on where that growth is happening, both because of the increased resolution and because the meters are separated into residential and business.

Measuring usage will become “a lot easier and cheaper,” because of technology, he said. “Those efficiencies translate into savings.”

The city is expected to save about $150,000 per year from the elimination of four positions related to billing and meter reading. With automatic transmission, workers will no longer have to go on monthly rounds to read the meters, and automatic shut-off and reconnection switches on certain meters will allow easier transitions from tenant to tenant in rental properties, Melton said.

Reductions water loss from the better meters should save the city about $1.3 million annually, according to staff projections.

Additionally, Melton said the system will make it easier to create growth plans that accurately measure water needs, such as the most recent WSACC Master Plan, which took more than a year to create.

“With the existing system, we had to manually input all of the data,” he said. “Now you can aggregate a certain portion of your system and say ‘what’s the percentage of consumption in the western part of the city versus the eastern part of the city,” because everything is marked by GPS coordinates.

ROLLING OUT

Contract crews continue to install the system, with a completion time planned for the end of the year.

The first phase was smaller, with an uptick in the current second phase and a much larger rollout for the third phase.

“We wanted to take it slow and make sure if there were any kinks or any problems that we could adjust,” Simpson said. “We didn’t want to just jump out head first.”

Before residents get the new meter they will receive a letter from the city telling them about the new system and directing them to the city’s website about the project.

The letter will let residents know workers are coming to install the system and will ask them to keep their meter boxes clear.

Simpson said there may be brief water disruptions -- five minutes or less -- while the meter goes in, and there may be air bubbles in the water for a short while after installation.