Real-time remote monitoring

Malta’s reliance on desalination means that water bills are high so stopping leaks had to be achieved. An Automated Meter Management was the answer

Since water is a precious resource, its production and distribution must be carried out in an environmentally responsible and cost-effective manner. This is even more so in the case of Malta where 60% of the nation’s potable water is produced by burning fossil fuels that generate electricity to run our three reverse osmosis plants. The remaining 40% comes from an underground aquifer that is already suffering from over-abstraction.

So it is understandable that potable water in Malta, a country situated in an arid region, is far more costly to produce than in countries with wetter climates. This stark reality is reflected in consumers’ bills. Water is therefore a social issue which can create political repercussions at times.

Due to this ‘water-stressed’ situation, every water connection in Malta has been individually metered for billing purposes since the 1950s, thereby embracing very early on the principles of ‘pay per use’ and ‘full cost recovery’ that were more recently implemented elsewhere in Europe. It is thus no surprise that the Water Services Corporation (WSC) in Malta is also the first water company in the world to implement a nationwide Automated Meter Management (AMM) system. This system carries high capital and recurrent costs, which are included within water tariffs, in line with the aforementioned full cost recovery principles.

The subsequent increase in the cost of water raises interesting questions because the initial capital outlay of the project is never justified simply because it substitutes manual meter reading by automated reading for billing purposes. On the contrary, manual meter reading is by far cheaper than installing such a complex system. This is why AMM should not be looked upon as merely a way to obtain consumers’ readings remotely, thereby avoiding the need for human meter readers. The rich information made available through smart water metering can be used for much more.

Malta’s AMM system began in 2013 with a nationwide smart meter installation campaign in all premises. Overall coverage stands at around 86%, while the island of Gozo is close to 100%. Around 256.000 water meters wirelessly transmit millions of bytes of data every hour, which is sorted in a way that helps to improve operational efficiency both qualitatively and quantitatively.

WSC’s Strategic Information section spearheaded a number of initiatives intended to use this realtime information and analysis to create operational tools for its technical sections. Most important is the use of remote reading of customer water meters and the monitoring of consumption figures to detect household leakages. This has proved to be a powerful tool that provides engineers with enough information to solve otherwise complex problems.

Studies show that consumers use water in a number of variations of a standard distribution curve. But whatever the lifestyle, number of inhabitants or consumption profile, water use in the majority of cases goes down to zero at some point in the space of 24 hours, most likely during the more silent hours of the day. Intelligent algorithms detect individual accounts that deviate from this norm to highlight potential losses.

When water from a public utility leaks into a private residence (usually a basement) from the public infrastructure, it causes severe damage to third-party property. It also exposes the corporation to compensation claims, wastes a precious resource and obviously contributes to inflate ‘nonrevenue water’. Such leakage is prioritised and technicians address these cases with urgency, but the often complex nature of these cases calls for the sequential shutting off of areas in order to trace the origins of such leaks. But closing consumers’ water in the middle of summer is frustrating and leads to vociferous yet justified complaints in both conventional and social media.

A close study of the topography of an area surrounding a leakage complaint is correlated with the smart meter readings of surrounding dwellings. If a particular neighbour’s consumption is pinpointed as deviating from the norm, there is a high probability that the residence in question has an internal leak that may be contributing to the water seepage into the complainant’s property. Analysis of the data provided by remote reading allows our technicians to address such complex leaks in a shorter time.

This tool also works for what is termed as ‘internal leakage’, that is leakage inside private property after the meter, which can carry severe financial burdens. Early in 2016, WSC launched a system whereby its customer care department informs customers of any suspicious unaccounted for or abnormal consumption.

Unaccounted-for consumption often arises from buried water pipes or defective flushing cisterns which, because they are situated after the meter, are the tenant’s responsibility. This type of consumption can go unnoticed for long periods of time. The information acquired from regular remote reading allows WSC to create various typical tenant water consumption profiles. These vary from a typical family of four in a terraced house to a single person in a studio flat. When engineers notice that particular consumption does not follow the norm or does not go down to zero without a valid reason, tenants are notified of possible internal leakages.

Apart from this, a newly launched web-based application lets householders monitor their own water consumption in real time, allowing them to identify and eliminate suspicious consumption when away from home. In these cases, so-called ‘suspicious’ consumption could be some sort of unauthorised water use or it could simply be an extravagant lifestyle, wasting hundreds of litres per day in extreme cases.

Because such consumption can be monitored by registered users, corrective action can be taken to curtail wastage. Feedback received from satisfied persons, unaware that they were hitherto paying for ‘avoidable’ consumption, confirm that this is also having a positive effect on WSC’s public image.

To conclude, AMM entails substantial investment in terms of capital, technical and human resources. It is therefore imperative that any water company investing in such a system is innovative, creating the best possible applications and solutions that make good use of the wealth of information available. However, when it comes to calculate AMM’s effects on the bottom line, this is not so easy, as many of the benefits accrued are qualitative rather than quantitative. Although the technology allows more efficient operations and greater interaction with consumers, in themselves never-ending processes, it is virtually impossible to put definite figures on increased profits or reduced costs.

By Charles Brincat, CEO, Stephen Zerafa, Head of Public Relations and Stefan Riolo, Director, Distribution Network, Water Services Corporation International Limited

Read more: Water Matters

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