This article originally appeared in WWD May 2020 issue as "How to Deploy a New AMI System"
Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technologies are proven solutions that provide water utilities with greater visibility and control over their systems. Connecting water meters with a central software hub, AMI technologies offer two-way communication and give hands-on access to regularly updated data. Armed with this information, a water utility team can in turn identify and address leaks faster, drive revenue management, understand its water conservation efforts and more easily comply with reporting requirements.
When developing a plan to deploy a new AMI system or upgrade an existing system, water utilities should consider three overarching elements: major considerations, phasing and optimal installation workforce. These driving factors will help determine how a utility rolls out its deployment and prepares for and communicates its plan to its most valuable constituents: the water consumer.
To help address these elements, ask a few important questions along the way:
1.Major considerations. What are the funding, timeline and resource dependencies? Where is your utility looking to secure funding? Are there timeline constraints tied to the selected funding source? Are there any blackout periods or other major infrastructure projects in the works?
2.Phasing. Are you considering a pilot phase to test the system? Depending on budget or timing constraints, utilities may need to do a rollout of new equipment, focusing on residential first and then commercial or vice versa. Crucially important is working through the process changes based on new incoming data and how the system responds. This information will help determine how much of the system’s equipment needs to be replaced, whether you need to replace both water meters and communication technology, or simply are retrofitting existing technology to work with an upgraded management software.
3.Optimal Installation Workforce. Will you plan to hire outside contractors to support the internal utility workforce? How involved will your internal team be in the installation process? The number of employees available to deploy a new system will largely determine the time and funding required for a complete deployment.
These questions can guide key strategic decisions moving forward, many of which occur before the equipment even arrives at the water utility.
Before Deployment: Planning
The information obtained by answering the deployment questions and reflecting on the overall needs of the water utility is the most instrumental part of the planning phase. Using this information, the water utility team should then develop a well-defined scope of work, within which are the responsibilities for the utility, as well as any planned contractor(s), timeline and budget.
Before beginning a deployment, the water utility team should also conduct a thorough audit of existing assets, determining accurate quantities of equipment, technologies currently deployed, pit conditions across the system and available labor. From this understanding of the current state of affairs, the utility team can work to identify project requirements and research and select the vendor partner that best fits the utility’s needs.
Selecting a Supplier
To select the optimal supplier, many utilities conduct research and send out a request for proposals. An extra step that can yield positive results is contacting neighboring or regional utilities that have already had success with an AMI deployment. Understanding the decisions and process of others can help a utility find the best solution to meet its own needs.
Other considerations to look for when selecting a supplier include choosing vendors that provide a single-source supply of equipment and have a proven commitment to the long-term vision of the utility. For instance, when the city of Paducah, Kentucky, recently decided to upgrade its water system with new AMI technology, the utility team looked for a vendor that offered an end-to-end, single-source solution. The team researched numerous vendors and ultimately selected Badger Meter.
The Value of the Pilot Phase
Once the water utility team has developed a plan that highlights material logistics, procedures, schedules, quality and communications, the team should then begin a thoughtful pilot program to test equipment and validate the vendor research and assumptions. In Paducah, for example, Paducah Water began piloting Badger Meter’s BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) managed solution with ORION cellular endpoints.
In addition to testing the validity of the new equipment, the pilot helps the water utility team test its execution plan from external and internal communications to physical installation. To ensure a smooth implementation, the external communication plan deserves particular attention. The utility should plan to communicate to its customers the overall strategy, address any anticipated concerns and highlight benefits of the new solution. Specifically, utility customers may be interested in learning about increased operational efficiency, timelier leak detection and consumer engagement tools, which in turn empower end water customers to monitor their own consumption. The utility should be prepared to use multiple communication methods to reach various segments of its customer base.
If the pilot phase is successful, the water utility team can begin a full rollout of the new system. Here is where the planning phase is most essential. At this point, the water utility team will enact its pre-determined plan. Open lines of communications to internal employees — ensuring, through training, that they understand how to operate and test new equipment — and to water utility customers will be crucial.
Based on the developed scope of work, the utility should have also determined its need to hire outside contractors to complete the installation. During its AMI deployment project with Badger Meter, the city of Auburndale, Florida, spent considerable time researching contractors to support the installation. After selecting a partner, the team worked hand in hand with the contractor to complete the deployment. This process allowed the installation team to address issues in real time and helped the utility complete its deployment on time and on budget.
After deployment is completed, the water utility team now takes ownership of the system. The work does not end. Beyond ongoing maintenance and fully leveraging the system’s new features, here is the opportunity for the utility team to reflect on successes and challenges and identify potential areas of future expansion or other needs.
Communication remains vital here as well. The water utility team must continue to communicate new technology updates both internally and externally as well as offer education resources for those who are still learning about the new system.
For water utilities working with Badger Meter’s BEACON AMA software, upon utility approval, their customers automatically gain access to the company’s EyeOnWater consumer portal, a mobile and computer-based application that offers hands-on access to customer water usage data.
Although education should start during a deployment phase, the period following deployment offers an opportunity to engage with customers to introduce and educate them on the changes and added features expected from the new system.
Careful Planning & Execution
Time and money are on the line every time a utility team considers deploying a new water management system. With the success of smarter solutions for water management, along with the challenges of aging infrastructure, the water metering industry is seeing a greater desire from water utilities across the country to upgrade technologies. With careful and thoughtful research and deliberations using the previously mentioned tools and steps, a water utility can find long-term success not only for its system but also for its relationship with its customers.