There is a convergence occurring within smart metering. Over the past six months, I’ve had numerous conversations with metering, AMI and communications providers, and it’s clear from what they’re saying that electric, water and gas are looking seriously at shared communications solutions to return end-usage data back to the utility.

Nowhere is this more imperative than within multi-utility municipalities, many of whom provide either two or sometimes all three services to their consumers. Recently, I spoke with Hassan Ali, vice president and general manager of Mueller Systems, a division of Mueller Water Products, Inc. Ali is familiar to many within the industry: in the past, he has served as director of quality and business excellence at Siemens Power Transmission & Distribution, and as general manager/vice president, and then director of marketing for Landis + Gyr.

At Mueller Systems, he is focused on smart metering solutions to optimize the delivery and use of both energy and water.

While the electric utility industry has been moving from automated meter reading (AMR) to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), it has been more difficult to prove the business case for the AMI move within the water industry. “Water municipalities always considered monthly billing as the only use,” Ali told me. “Now, they are looking at aging infrastructure and conservation issues, as well, which is driving more technology.”

Within a multi-utility municipality, the two-way communications often already in play, or nearing deployment, can be optimized, so the information from the water meter flows to either the electric or gas meter, and is then channeled back to the utility.

While this isn’t a new concept—Ralph Abbott, president of Plexus Research, an R.W. Beck Company, wrote about “The Successful AMI Marriage: When Water AMR and Electric AMI Converge,” back in May 2008 for Water World magazine—what’s more recent is the advanced technology available to make it happen in a more economic way.

Two years ago, Abbott wrote: “Municipal water utilities with an electric counterpart should communicate soon and often. Most AMI system investments rest on a complex business case. Using the same infrastructure for both electric and water (and gas) obviously enhances that case. The water utility can help the electric utility make its case, and both utilities will reap the benefits.”

Ali, whose company is building radio transceivers into fire hydrant caps in order to communicate water usage-related data—what he describes as an economical, fixed-network solution using an infrastructure that’s already in place—discussed the importance for water utilities to be able to ascertain water leaks along the system (another economic reason for integrating AMI abilities). “Leak detection is now getting 90-percent reliable,” he said. “When the leak occurs, the municipality knows about it right away, and can make prioritized decisions about how and where to spend their O&M budgets.”

The idea of using the existing hydrant infrastructure to build a communications grid is an appealing concept. And at the home, where water meters are most often within sightlines of the electric or gas meter, uploading from the water meter to one of the other two meters presents a more economical business case for a multi-utility municipality, in particular.

But economical AMI for water meters also presents interesting food for thought, especially in water-starved states such as California. What will the ability for time-of-use water pricing, rather than bulk use pricing, do for conservation efforts?

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