Data Collection and Management

This activity is at the center of all decision making and planning that the water provider/entity conducts.  Data should be collected and stored in such a manner that it is safeguarded from damage or loss, accessible for inspection and evaluation, and utilized regularly to characterize trends and support management efforts.

With respect to customer-based water conservation, tracking customer water use by individual customer, customer segment or sector and system wide are vital measures to monitor and verify the effectiveness of implemented water efficiency measures and programs focused on customer demand management.  Tracking changes in water use for customers that utilized specific water conservation programs in comparison to customers that did not is one of the most meaningful analyses that water utilities can perform if they are choosing to implement customer demand management programs.  Note that some customer demand management programs such as education cannot be tracked via individual customer water demand; however, educational programs that target specific customer classes and/or all water customers can be tracked indirectly by characterizing changes in water use by customer class, customer segment or sector, and/or system wide water use (tracked as total water sold).

Data collection and management related to customer water delivery should focus upon:

  • Consistent and accurate reading of customer meters
    • Individual Customers
    • Water Use by Customer Segment
    • System Wide Water Use
  • Costs of Measures and Programs

From a Utility Perspective (which is the same information as presented under Water Delivery to Customers/Data Collection/Consistent and Accurate Reading of Customer Meters)

Customer meters should be read at a consistent time interval every month, or more often if possible (meaning with the use of electronic data collection methods) to support timely billings and data assessment; however, some organizations with limited resources may choose to collect customer meter reading every other month.  It should nonetheless be the goal of all water utilities to collect monthly customer readings since the interval of meter readings relates directly to billings and cash flow, as well as the opportunity to provide customers with feedback on their individual water use (e.g., a leak on the customer side of the meter can be found, as can excessive water use, etc.).

Readings can be collected manually or with radio read devices.  Manual readings require that the meter reader gain access to the meter for each reading.  This activity can be complicated or even blocked by snow cover or other natural or manmade hindrances such as insects, dogs, snow pack, local flooding, etc.   For this reason, manual meter reading can create lost work time injuries for staff or volunteers.  Manual reading methods also can introduce errors related to data transcription both in the field and in the office where hand written notes are used for billings (either by hand or with the use of computer based software). 

For these reasons, manual meter reading is not the best alternative for data collection and it is increasingly considered not to be a best management practice for rural water utilities that have large service areas, limited resources, and may be impacted by natural causes.  Best management practices in rural settings, as well as towns and cities include leveraging the benefits of readily available technologies, which can reduce the cost of data collection, improve the accuracy of meter reading and support faster and more accurate billing. These technology solutions include, in order of least cost to highest cost:

  • Using internet based software to manage meter reading and billing (which allows for IPhone input of meter data from the field in real time).  Using this technology can help to reduce transcription errors and may improve data handling and storage procedures.  The cost to implement this technology is about $25/month per 500 connections (this cost may vary for very small or very large utilities).  
  • Using Automated Meter Reading (AMR) devices to collect customer meter data using local reading devices (either touch pad or drive by radio read devices).  Using this technology allows the meter reader to collect more data in a shorter period of time and with greater accuracy.  In addition, drive by radio read devices allow collection of meter data even with hindrances such as snow cover, dogs, etc. The cost to implement AMR on a per connection basis varies depending on the number of connections, given that the radio read device (or touch pad reader) and the computer software and training is a lump sum cost in the $10,000 to $14,000 range.  For the nearly 20,000 meters in the Lower Arkansas River Valley, the cost for a complete upgrade to AMR was estimated to range from about $160 to 240 per meter (in addition to the cost of the meter itself, which is another $80 to 120 per meter), plus a cost of $10 to 25 in maintenance costs per year per meter.
  • Advanced metering systems are comprised of state-of-the-art electronic/digital hardware and software, which combine interval data measurement with continuously available remote communications. These systems enable measure­ment of detailed, time-based information and frequent collection and transmittal of such information to various parties. Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) typically refers to the full measurement and collection system that includes meters at the customer site, communication networks between the customer and the water utility, and data recep­tion and management systems that make the information available to the water utility.   AMI systems eliminate the need for field staff to collect customer meter data; and it improves the accuracy of data collection and management.  Another valuable attribute of AMI is that it allows for tracking water use in a manner that detects customer side leaks, which can be detected electronically and trigger sending text or phone call alerts. The cost for installing AMI was found to range from about $35 to 95 per meter in addition to the costs for AMR and the meter.

From a Customer Perspective

Customers may chose to read their own meters to better understand their own water use and to track their use versus a water budget or some of metric.  If the customer meter is installed at a location that is accessible to the customer, then the customer may obtain periodic readings from the meter, if it has a gage that allows for manual inspection and interpretation.  Their are devices that are available that can transmit a low volt signal from the meter to a meter reading interface that could be located anywhere that is convenient (e.g., on the refrigerator).  This allows the customer to track water use close to real time, but is based on periodic readings.

Some utilities with AMR and AMI collect data in a continuous manner, that can be accessed by a customer via an online graphic interface.  This tool also assists the customer with viewing their water use over time.  This technology can also be used by the utility and/or the customer to set alarms that will alert the customer when some specified event occurs - e.g., water usage during early morning hours; monthly water use over a particular threshold, etc. 

Any method that provides the customer with better information on their water use may support and reinforce some water efficiency practices; however, some water customers have reportedly increased their water use using continuous (or near continuous) monitoring devices, since they use the information to determine how much water they can use up to a specified budget (where previously, using estimation techniques, they may have chosen to use substantially less water in lieu of better more accurate data).

Resources

MuniBilling Utility Billing Software

Automated Meter Reading Links

Sensus

Firefly (Datamatic)

Mueller

Advanced Metering Infrastructure Links

Sensus

Mueller

Industry Technology Information

Intelligent Utility

Water World

 

Many utilities already have basic customer classification information tracked within their billing software, since many utilities have rates that are specific for different types of customers. At the most basic level, utilities distinguish between residential and non-residential customers. An improvement over the basic level of data collection and management is to distinguish between single family residential, multi-family residential (with the number of units served per tap included), dedicated irrigation, commercial, industrial and municipal water users.

To effectively benchmark and target water conservation to the customers with the greatest potential to conserve, more detailed classification is recommended, particularly in the nonresidential sector.  In addition, a more thorough breakdown of water customer types can assist the utility in tracking water use characteristics of its customers, and support the evaluation of cost benefits related to implemented water conservation programs that were targeted to specific customer types.

The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) provides a uniform numerical classification system that is readily available for utilities to use. NAICS offers several levels of specificity (for example – commercial customers can be differentiated into nursing homes and restaurants and restaurants can be further subdivided into fast food restaurants, French Restaurants, Chinese Restaurants, etc. associated with the degree to which the utility needs discretization). NAICS codes are created and maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau. References and files may be obtained through the Census Bureau website (www.census.gov/eos/www/naics/).  By using the NAICS codes, as a standard, it is possible to compare restaurants in one location with restaurants in another, helping to assist utilities with benchmarking.

Adding a NAICS code classification, as appropriate for each customer requires the ability to add at least one new field to the utility customer database. This field must be populated with unique information differentiating those types of customers that the utility deems important. It is recommended that the utility consider the following as a minimum:

  • Single family residential
  • Multi-family residential
  • Commercial
  • Institutional (municipal)
  • Other Institutional (hospital, prison)
  • Industrial
  • Irrigation Only

For residential and irrigation-only customers, the code assignment process can often be accomplished quickly because utilities already know who these customers are at the desired level of precision. For the commercial and municipal sectors, classifying each customer may require some effort including surveys, telephone calls, site visits, and web research. Once established, the classification of new customers can be handled by customer service personnel when each account is set up.

All utilities should aggregate system wide water use related to water production, water sold, water lost and other water uses (e.g., non-potable use, metered unbilled water, etc.) on a monthly basis as part of its basic operations.  As indicated elsewhere in the BMP Tool Box, this practice will assist the water utility in:

  • Identifying potential leaks
  • Supporting water loss management
  • Tracking potential water supply shortages and the need for drought related responses

These records should be provided monthly to the operations manager, along with the utility Board, preferably in both graphic and tabular form.

Costs for Individual Water Conservation Measures and Programs

The utility should track those costs incurred to plan for, promote and implement customer demand management activities.  Cost should relate to all of the programs that the utility plans for and implements – tracking the costs for individual programs to the extent possible.

Note that many utilities have traditionally not tracked cross-departmental costs of water conservation – given that water conservation evaluations typically include data and analyses collected across departmental boundaries (i.e., engineering/planning, finance, operations).  For large organizations, it is important to create linkages that allow for the sharing and management of data from different departments.  For small organizations, where a single person or a small team are performing all the data collection efforts, the data analyses are often forgotten in the day to day operations.  In both circumstances, procedures and processes should be developed to integrate the data collection and analysis efforts into the month to month reporting and assessment practices.

To this point, it is recommended that all water utilities regardless of size, create regular reporting mechanism that presents costs and estimates of water demand reductions associated with all customer-base water conservation programs[1].  A reasonable timeframe for reporting is once per year, if possible.  The report should be at least this often and should address:

  • Observed demand trends
  • Costs of water conservation programs
  • Impact of changing demand trends on water supply and utility revenues.



[1] At a minimum per connection water use per month and per year should be calculated and reported for each key customer category for Board and management review and understanding.