One of my all-time favorite movies is “Back to the Future.” The idea of going back in time to experience history and how it influences the future is so “heavy,” as Marty McFly would say.

Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

In the movie, Marty wasn’t necessarily unhappy with the way his life was, but a different approach to the past proved an even better future in the end.

History provides us knowledge, and the learnings can be applied to help innovate and lead to some unexpected benefits.

Take water meter networks as an example. No DeLorean needed, we will just review some history and see what is in store for the future. For that history, I hit up my equivalent of Doc Brown: Chris Thomson, Smart Water Manager at Sensus.

It’s the late 1800’s when urbanization and industrialization began to shape the water meter industry. The concept of the meter is pretty simple, but difficult to execute. According to a story published by the National Museum of American History,  a commentator once stated “Measurement of water flowing through pipes, under any and all circumstances of position, pressure, and velocity, has, perhaps, more difficulties than any other with which the modern mechanic can grapple.” Basically the commentator was saying, you have so many things to take into account with the flow of water; can any device really capture it all? 

SRII water meter

Necessity is the mother of invention and the need to sell water by the volume proved enough for inventors to create durable and accurate devices that could measure various flow rates of water.

While water metering technology advanced in the 20th Century, the method for reading  meters didn’t change too much until the 1980’s. The age of personal computers and technology to speed up processes came to the water industry too. In 1985 Sensus introduced TouchRead. This technology still required a technician to visit the meter but rather than writing down the reads, a wand could be touched to the meter and the reads electronically captured.

In 1993, another new Sensus technology, RadioRead was widely adopted. Now readings could be done without physical contact to the meter. Technicians could be near the meter and the meters would transmit the reading remotely. Many systems still utilize this walk by/drive by or Automatic Meter Reading solution (AMR)

In the 2000’s a new innovation came onto the scene with a fixed-based meter reading solution. Now meters could be read across a network of radio collectors. This solution is often referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI.  This technology allowed entire systems to be read remotely. This system allows for faster meter reads, reduction in missed or estimated reads and eliminates the needs for costly truck rolls. It also creates billing efficiencies with fewer transcription errors and the increased frequency of reads reduces the customer “sticker shock,” especially for customers who may have had a leak that caused more water than typical to flow through the meter.

AMI is what seems to be on top of mind for many utilities today.  This isn’t a bad thing, but I think it does not take advantage of the continued evolution of water networks. I recommend the Marty McFly way of doing things; Go into it with the future in mind!

Today, utility networks are reaching beyond the traditional functions of AMI to reach across the utility landscape.  Using the foundation of an AMI system; an entire Smart Utility Network can be built to solve problems across the utility water cycle and beyond.  Using intelligent measurement tools, sensors, and the right communication network, a Smart Utility Network can apply data analytics, smart alarms, and smart applications to improve operations and efficiencies. 

A Smart Utility Network now allows utilities to look more holistically at the complete utility water cycle so that it becomes a Smart Water Cycle.  The same infrastructure that used to be used only for AMI can now monitor surface and ground water supplies, distribution water pressure, water quality, and even extend beyond drinking water to stormwater and wastewater applications.  And a utility operator begins to see data and get a better idea of how her system operates, opportunities for enhancements and efficiencies begin to emerge.    

AMI is a robust and reliable technology, but AMI alone is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  The Smart Utility Network is now ready to implement 1.21 gigawatts of future solutions across the entire Smart Water Cycle.