There is a great deal of interest among water agencies in a lower cost and easier to deploy method of constructing an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) network. Many small to mid-size utilities simply cannot afford the high capital cost associated with traditional AMI and have been effectively priced out of the AMI market.
In fact, many traditional AMI implementations stall during the procurement process, when the full project costs become clear, or in the seemingly never-ending field deployment phase. This concern led to the development of Optical AMI by Water Pigeon. In short, Optical AMI uses a camera to take a picture of the meter face and then transmits the digital data to the utility.
Water Pigeon integrates a camera and a cellular modem in the lid of the meter box. An AMI system contained fully within the meter box lid. This simple solution reduces cost by half and dramatically speeds field deployment for the utility.
Over the course of the last year, Water Pigeon has worked closely with several San Diego based water utilities to conduct two major pilot tests. The purpose of the field tests is to verify the effectiveness of an Optical AMI solution that is contained within the meter box lid. These field tests involved the deployment of over 175 meter reading units in some of the most difficult locations hand-picked by the utility. The pilots have been highly successful and have proven that water meters can be read remotely, and that optical meter data can be transmitted to a utility in a timely and efficient manner.
The lessons we’ve learned during the pilots, as well as the design suggestions made by the utilities will be incorporated into the next production version. A final report will be provided at the end of the pilots later this month to the utilities involved.
There are several common questions asked by both consumers and water agency staff alike. Here are some of those questions and our responses.
Can Water Pigeon be used on a mobile construction meter?
Yes. A version of Water Pigeon was recently created at the request of one of the piloting utilities. They have numerous construction meters that are loaned to construction contractors who use them to meter water they pull from fire hydrants. We take a picture of the meters four times per day and send the information to the utility who bills the contractor directly. This saves time for the contractor, who doesn't have to take them to the utility to be read each month, while also benefiting the utility by allowing them to remotely read these meters.
Can Water Pigeon be used if the meter is in a deep pit or vault?
Of course. We have a special version of the Water Pigeon that is designed for deeper vaults and confined spaces. This version has a "nest" that supports the Water Pigeon device over the top of the meter and an antenna that is mounted on the top surface of the vault access hatch lid or adjacent structure.
Can Water Pigeon be used in residential applications?
Definitely. We have run pilots throughout the county of San Diego which included about 150 residential installations. The residential model will work for most locations. We replace the lid of the existing meter box with our own lid which contains the integrated Water Pigeon.
How does Optical AMI deal with cold, heat, dirt, condensation, and the dark?
We are happy to report, we have a current read rate exceeding 98% across the four pilot utilities. Our biggest issue is the condition of the utilities' meter face. When scratched to a point where you can't read them with the human eye, they must be replaced. This has happened over the years as meter reading staff have scraped the meter face to remove dirt or debris.
As for dirt and debris, the Water Pigeon lid does not have any openings in it. This dramatically reduces any dirt or debris from entering the box from the outside. Any bugs or animals that enter the box from below tend to move about the box over time and allow us to view the meter face.
Regarding temperatures, we've seen temperatures as high as 114 F and haven't had any issues. We don't anticipate any problems with cold weather. Our only issue is if snow is piled over the top of the meter box for prolonged periods. We use the existing cellular network to communicate and will find it difficult to connect if we are under several feet of snow.
Condensation has been a minor issue when we’ve seen major temperature fluctuations between low and high temperatures during the day. In those instances, we've been able to deal with the condensation issue by taking the reading during the warmest part of the day and through the application of hydrophobic and hydrophilic coatings. Our latest Water Pigeon design will shed condensation more effectively. As for darkness, we have 7 LED's built into the unit that we use to illuminate the dial face. We can adjust the LED's remotely to increase visibility.
Do you have details of the potential savings in comparison to manual reading, the impact on leakage reduction and customer consumption as they are potentially getting more frequent data?
Yes, we have contract bids from utilities here in the U.S. that are installing traditional AMI. Those bids have ranged between $250 - $750 US per meter. The ongoing operational costs are all over the map based on the utilities' method of charging operating expenses and capital expenses. Often the ongoing costs of maintaining the towers and communication costs are not made public (or even known) by the utility.
Our costs are around $200 per residential meter and $0.75/meter/month to provide the readings and basic analytics. This cost includes access to a dashboard where the utility can view individual meters or system-wide usage.
A major AMI provider recently cited a survey of 182 global water utilities who estimated leakage reduction in the range of 2 - 5% for AMI implementation. Additional savings is gained from decreased utility pumping, water treatment costs, truck trips (greenhouse gas emissions), conservation monitoring, system optimization, and improved customer service.
How do Water Pigeon costs compare to a traditional smart meter?
As mentioned above, our costs are about half of the traditional smart meter implementation. Our costs are lower because we don't require the installation of a network to communicate, nor do we require the original meter be replaced. This allows the utility to replace meters as they reach the end of their useful life, the most effective means of handling asset management and leveling asset management spending.
I assume the cost is not so different, but the installation costs are much lower.
Our installation costs are very low due to the speed of deployment. Optical AMI deploys roughly ten times faster than traditional AMI. Replace the lid, that's basically it. We can install our Water Pigeons in as little as 3 minutes per location and do not impact the customer because we don't touch the meter. I've installed one in a minute, but it was in driving rain and I didn't want to get wet.