Climate change is accelerating. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), in 2020 there were 22 severe weather events across the US breaking the previous record of 16 events in a year. In addition, the EPA indicates extreme events, such as heatwaves and large storms, will become more frequent and more intense moving forward. Severe weather can have serious implications for water utilities – from day-to-day activities like meter reading and billing to operational concerns for the utility front-line workers maintaining our critical water systems. These events can also have a significant impact on the utility’s customers in areas vital to everyday life – from water supply to billing accuracy.

In this blog post, I am focusing on how a smart utility network can make a water utility more resilient, which is a key factor for enabling water system operations to stand strong in a storm. There are a number of network architecture options for these systems with varying abilities to continue operating in severe weather events. 

Key drivers that enable a communications system to continue working during and after severe weather include:

  • Hardened installations for network equipment that don’t go down in a severe weather event
  • Reliable message transmission that continues to operate normally in the worst of times
  • Water meter communications that are not reliant on an electric meter or series of endpoints to get their messages out to the head end system
  • Continued operations of the system when the electric company’s power grid is offline due to down trees and power outages
  • Built-in redundancy of the network in the event of equipment failure
  • Full duplex communications for improved communications from the meters in the field to the head end software and from the head end to the meters in the field
  • Ability to dedicate separate inbound and outbound radio frequency (RF) channels to talk and listen at the same time meaning the network doesn’t have to take turns in processing critical alarms

Robust communications in normal times and severe weather events

To optimize customer satisfaction during times of weather-related outages, water utilities must ensure that water meters and network collectors continue to operate normally even when the electric system is powered off. This allows the utility to continue to receive all operationally important data – including continuous flow (leak) alarms and pipe pressure readings at the times you most need the information. This vital data can help field crews respond to real-time issues to prevent further impact on the water system.

For combination systems where your company operates a mix of water, gas or electric systems, having independent solutions for the different verticals that are also able to operate over the same communications system strikes the best balance between independence and economics for the system.

Meter-based battery-powered communications that keep going and going and going for the life of the system

How often do you have to charge your cell phone? What about your computer? Wouldn’t you like these devices to stay powered and continue to operate longer?

When it comes to water meter communications, your smart utility network can make this happen. No one wants to have to replace batteries in the field at your meters. Look for a solution that can provide a full 20-year service life for your water meter communications.

During power outages on the electric grid, your water meter messages will continue their normal operation – identify solutions that continue to report hourly billing reads and alarms – without a pause.

System insights during and after the storm

A water smart utility network architecture should be simple and straightforward. Initial installation and ongoing network maintenance should be a snap. One of the best designs available enables meters to communicate directly to the network collectors that communicate directly to the head end system.

Using a network that enables multiple communication routes with always-on RF coverage that provides redundant, overlapping communication means endpoints will continue to have messages received at all times. This translates into high-read percentages, improved two-way communication performance and robust alarm reporting from anywhere in your service area – whether dense urban, sub-urban, sparsely populated rural areas, or a combination of them all. This data will help your operations teams gather key information during storm events and be better prepared for needed actions after the storm.

Key network features and benefits of a smart utility network

Look for these network characteristics as you go through your smart utility network selection process. These abilities can dramatically impact the resiliency of the system, especially in a storm.

  • Flexibility to mount the network equipment on hardened vertical assets that don’t go down in a storm
  • On-board battery backup power in the collector in case of primary alternating current (AC) power loss for a minimum of eight hours
  • Smart utility network designs that provide always-on, redundant communications paths
  • Network equipment that can operate over long distances which will reduce the overall number of devices
  • On-board data storage capability where a collector is able to store received messages in the event of offline backhaul. Upon backhaul reconnection, these messages should be automatically forwarded quickly to the head end, along with current real-time readings. 

Severe weather events can be trying times for water utilities and the communities they serve. Being ready and able to provide customers with continued service and peace of mind doesn’t go unnoticed. A resilient, robust, and comprehensive communications network can be a big part of delivering on this promise.