This article was originally published by the Texas American Water Works Association on September 7, 2016.
Significant changes in population trends create a domino effect in other socio-economic sectors. Increases in population place added stress on existing water sources, and Texas especially is experiencing this trend, with five of its cities among the fastest-growing in the country.[i] Among the many challenges Texas water and wastewater utilities are facing is the need to improve “public understanding of the value of water systems and services and public understanding of the value of water resources.”[ii] Installing Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMIs or smart water meters) can alleviate the lack of customer awareness and instill this appreciation for water and water service/delivery.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “between 1980 and 2010, Texas’ total population increased by 76.7 percent, from about 14.2 million to more than 25 million.”[iii] Estimates of growth since the 2010 Census give no indication that Texas’ growth has slowed or will slow any time soon.
The most rapid population expansion has been seen in suburban pockets within North, Central and East Texas. According to the latest estimates, three such cities were among the top five fastest-growing in the U.S. – Georgetown, New Braunfels and Frisco, with 7.8 percent, 6.6 percent and 6.3 percent increase between 2014 and 2015.[iv]
As a result of this population increase, the real estate market in Texas is booming. Again, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that “Texas gained more housing units than any other state between 2014 and 2015 (adding 162,000).”[v] As new housing developments emerge at a rapid pace, the demand for basic services such as water and electricity put an increased pressure on the grid and the utilities that serve these communities.
In 2007, Texas passed a law that requires cities to begin installing Advanced Metering Infrastructure, to allow customers to better manage their water usage and control the associated costs. A 2012 article from The Texas Tribune states that “more than 5.5 million smart meters have been installed across Texas.”[vi] The trend has also been observed at the national level by Bloomberg News, which reported that “U.S. water utilities will spend $2 billion on smart meters in infrastructure upgrades this year through 2020.”[vii]
In most cities across Texas, usage information from water meters currently is gathered by utility staff who go from meter to meter. Smart meters instead transmit this data on a real-time basis to a central database. The data from the water meters can be presented in a readable format for customers in their monthly bills or, via special software applications, in true real time directly to customers. This information allows customers to determine if there are leaks on their property and where the majority of water is used within the household — showers, toilets, lawns, faucets and so on.
By providing accurate details on water usage and leaks, smart meters can empower customers with information that encourages behavior change such as the adoption of conservation practices and technologies. Real-time usage data can provide customers with feedback that, for example, can highlight how much water was applied in an irrigation system in an overnight period or during periods of overly high consumption.
Customer satisfaction, supported by a positive consumer engagement experience, is a critical consideration when introducing any program or technology. Smart meter platforms need to make it easy for consumers to adopt the software and understand the data to increase customer satisfaction and the chances of behavior change. To promote widespread adoption of the new technology, it is necessary to stress clarity and predictability in communications.
Likewise, if a utility is not prepared to manage the data provided by smart meters, it will fail to achieve the full potential of the technology. For example, the water utility in Park City, Utah, found that “despite the remote radio meter readings, Park City wasn’t prepared for the amount of data coming in and still struggled to quickly analyze it and notify customers of leaks.”[viii]
Many customer complaints come after smart meters are installed and show that water usage is higher than previously thought, leading to higher bills. Thus, it is important for utilities to engage in a comprehensive outreach program that demonstrates accurately what new bills will look like. Utilities must also convey the message to customers that bills may go up because usage is being tracked accurately, which could also be an indication of leaks on the property.
An advantage to utilities that comes with installing smart meters, from a consumer outreach perspective, is the ability to better understand the unique usage patterns and needs of consumers. This helps utilities develop communication strategies that target desired behavioral changes. Other advantages of smart metering include the ability to immediately disseminate alerts for possible leak detection and to provide usage information more frequently, allowing customers to adopt prompt behavior change rather than waiting for the end of a monthly or quarterly billing cycle.
Utilities can also realize cost savings from smart metering, which can be passed on to customers directly or invested in additional consumer outreach. For example, Round Rock has eliminated six meter reader positions, leading to a $250,000 annual cost savings, as the city prepares for installation of its smart meters in September 2016.[ix] Currently, Austin Water spends around $3.6 million a year to hire an outside firm that conducts manual meter readings.[x]
Ronald A. Kaiser, professor of water policy at Texas A&M University, stated in an interview with The Texas Tribune that “having access to water-use data is helpful only if it is used to change habits.”[xi] Two frequently cited advantages of smart metering systems are the benefits of improved customer interaction and the opportunity to proactively engage with customers to help them be better conservers and observers of their water habits.
In Texas, the population will increase for decades to come. Every new individual or family that makes Texas home will definitely add pressure on the infrastructure and water supply. In order for water and wastewater utilities to mitigate the pressure of population growth, it is important to raise awareness on the value of water amongst both current and new residents. The mandated implementation of smart water meters and adoption of the technology in Texas is suggestive of the technology’s success in helping utilities achieve their goals of conservation, customer satisfaction and cost savings all at once.
[i] U.S. Census Bureau (2016, May 19). Five of the Nation’s Eleven Fastest-Growing Cities are in Texas. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-81.html [ii] American Water Works Association (2015). 2015 AWWA State of the WATER INDUSTRY Report. Pp 3. Retrieved from https://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/files/resources/water%20utility%20management/sotwi/2015-AWWA-State-of-the-Water-Industry-Report.pdf [iii] U.S. Census Bureau (2016, May 19). Five of the Nation’s Eleven Fastest-Growing Cities are in Texas. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-81.html [iv] U.S. Census Bureau (2016, May 19). Five of the Nation’s Eleven Fastest-Growing Cities are in Texas. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-81.html [v] U.S. Census Bureau (2016, May 19). Five of the Nation’s Eleven Fastest-Growing Cities are in Texas. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-81.html [vi] Ferguson, J.W. (2012, August 16). Smart Water Meters Take Root in Texas Cities. Texas Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2012/08/06/smart-water-meters-take-root-texas-cities/ [vii] Doom, J. (2013, May 13). Water Utilities to Spend $2 Billion on Smart Meters Through 2020. Bloomberg News. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-05-13/water-utilities-to-spend-2-billion-on-smart-meters-through-2020 [viii] Jerome, S. (2016, February 16). AMI Hits Utah City With New Headaches. Water Online. Retrieved from http://www.wateronline.com/doc/ami-hits-utah-city-with-new-headaches-0001 [ix] Jechow, A. and Kravets, L. (2016, August 5). Cedar Park to Install 22,000 ‘Smart Meters,’ Starting Next Month. KXAN. Retrieved from http://kxan.com/2016/08/05/cedar-park-to-install-22000-smart-meters-starting-next-month/ [x] Lim, A. (2016, April 19). Austin Water seeking $80 million for smart meters Austin American Statesman. Retrieved from http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/austin-water-seeking-80-million-for-smart-meters/nq7zJ/ [xi] Ferguson, J.W. (2012, August 16). Smart Water Meters Take Root in Texas Cities. Texas Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2012/08/06/smart-water-meters-take-root-texas-cities/