Launch Slideshow

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3 fallacies of ‘the grid’

3 fallacies of ‘the grid’

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    For Smarter Sustainable Dubuque's water pilot project, IBM used cloud computing to graphically present meter readings collected every 15 minutes. Data was plotted to show overall usage by date along with peak usage times. Charts show overall comparative trends between groups of volunteers who were engaged in the project versus those who weren't. Photo: City of Dubuque, Iowa

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    The Dubuque Water Department chose an unmeasured-flow reducer (UFR) coupling made by A. Y. McDonald Mfg. Co. (also of Dubuque) that augments the meter's ability to detect flows below the standard1/8to1/16of a gallon per minute down to the smallest leaks and drips. The device replaces the standard 21/2-in. coupling on the household side. According to Product Manager Daryl Gilreath, easy installation contributes to a return on investment of less than two years. Company research shows the device increases billable revenue by 5% to 10%. Photos: A. Y. McDonald Mfg. Co.

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    Commonly referred to as the “register” or “head,” Neptune Technology Group's e-Coder attaches to the meter's measuring chamber and encodes the chamber's rotation. The device digitizes the meter's ID, leak flags, and usage reading. Photo: City of Dubuque

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    Digitized data travels via cable to a meter interface unit (MIU) outside the home, which sends it to a collector called a gateway. Volunteers got Neptune Technology Group's R900 MIU, which transmits meter readings every 15 minutes via spread-spectrum (or 900 MHz) radio frequency. All other homes are getting a 450 MHz unit, which transmits data hourly. Photo: City of Dubuque

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    Neptune Technology Group GPRS gateways receive, store, and send digitized meter readings flowing from interface units via cell modem to a secure FTP site hosted by Verity Three. There, file integrity is verified and each record assigned an anonymous ID corresponding to the meter's ID. IBM created file transfer scripts that automatically check for the file's presence and transfer the data to the cloud, where the “smart water” portal is hosted and analytical processes are applied to current and historical water reading data. Photo: City of Dubuque

Editor's note:We've had it with words like “sustainable.” Marketers neutralize their impact by applying concepts to products and services that don't qualify.

Unless referring to the beverage marketed by actress Jennifer Aniston, “smart water” is similarly meaningless. But having identified a rich sales opportunity in the energy-intensive water and wastewater markets, companies use the term to demonstrate their solution transfers seamlessly from one market (electricity) to another (water).

We're not convinced it's that easy.

In our opinion, a “smart grid” monitors what's happening with the assets that comprise the grid and allows managers to move resources from one asset to another as needed. Electricity is lighter and thus more transferable than water, making the second half of our definition much more difficult for people who move water from place to place. But having deployed SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and other telemetric solutions to maximize pipe and pump and tank and well operations, we think many of you are already there in spirit.

Some solutions focus instead on consumption and billing: using wireless communications to improve the accuracy and/or frequency of meter readings. But although vendors can develop a solution around whatever technology an operation already has, achieving meaningful functionality often requires additional equipment as well as employees (or consultants) with expertise in analyzing and integrating communications systems and equipment.

That's difficult to do within a single jurisdiction, much less across boundaries. We've seen individual communities network streetlighting (see “Control Freaks” on page 40 of December 2008). We're watching state, county, and suburban managers move step-by-step toward regionalizing traffic control (see “Project fail-safe” on page 34 of this year's April issue). But nationwide, like we're trying to do with electricity?

What is “smart” water, anyway? Can the water industry simply copy the solutions being used to deploy smart electric grids? What does applying electrical terms — “outages” versus “service disruption” — to water say about a marketer's understanding of your unique challenges?

We explored the issue for those of you being urged to use the latest technology to manage this finite resource.

Last month, executives from Schneider Electric, Mueller Water Products Inc., Telvent, and other companies convened in Paris for the inaugural meeting of the Smart Water Networks Forum. Their goal is to help you use the vast amount of data your operation generates to lower energy use, extend asset life, and enhance reliability.

Though not yet a member, IBM's a likely candidate. Having targeted water as one of 10 industries that can benefit from its advanced analytics, technology services, and business consulting capabilities, the company's first portfolio of Strategic Water Management Solutions includes real-time metering. Their pilot project conducted with the water and information technology (IT) departments of Dubuque, Iowa, that proves customers will use less water if they can access consumption data online just earned an EPA State Revolving Loan Fund Award for Sustainable Public Health Protection.

Some of these companies are industry stalwarts, others are relative newcomers. Either way, a technology-based sales pitch faces some real challenges. Water and wastewater managers understand the potential benefits of operating in a data-driven environment, but sometimes lack the means. In a survey of 300 water utilities released last year by business systems solutions provider Oracle, for example, two-thirds of respondents agree they should deploy technology like “smart metering” but only one-third are doing so. Less than 10% have fully implemented smart metering. The reasons? Lack of cost recovery or measurable return on investment (46%) and upfront expenses (42%).

Of course, measuring consumption is just one aspect of a truly smart grid. There are other differences between the water and energy sectors, as well.