IoT and LoRaWAN: Transforming AMI utility networking systems

 

Sponsored by: Cheryl Norton, President, Missouri American Water. ~ Written by: David Stewart Jones, Writer, Researcher, & Journalist

David Stewart Jones updated 185 X 270

David Stewart Jones

Proprietary Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems have been a driving force in the water industry for the past decade. However, new infrastructure management systems based “Internet of Things” (IoT) connectivity harnessing “LoRaWAN” (Low-Power/Wide-Area) long-range wireless telecommunications now have the potential to become the new industry standard. With open standards and open architecture, these new IoT-based systems are poised to rapidly replace older single-purpose systems — and revolutionize water utility infrastructure management.

IoT and LoRaWAN networking

“Today — in 2017 — do utilities really want to keep adopting proprietary systems that will never be capable of doing anything beyond reading meters for the next 15 to 20 years?” asks Thomas Butler, marketing VP with AMI systems provider Mueller Systems.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems over the past decade have largely replaced older “drive-by” automatic meter reading (AMR) systems used by water utilities in North America. Delivering continuously available two-way data-gathering and communications between the network and metering devices, AMI systems accurately measure and collect detailed usage and billing information and enable a broad array of operational and customer-service benefits. Although capable and proven, most existing AMI systems are proprietary designs that are typically limited to meter-reading and data-gathering capabilities — “one-trick ponies” with limited functionality that cannot be easily expanded or adapted to meet the future needs of water utilities.

However, many utilities are now seizing opportunities to take their AMI system to the next level. Emerging next-generation AMI systems are incorporating the latest “Internet of Things” (IoT) technologies providing two-way communications and data transfer with specialized cloud-connected remote sensors and devices that is ushering in a new era of automated infrastructure management. Revolutionary advances include LoRaWAN™ wireless RF technology that enables connecting low-cost battery-operated sensors over long distances in harsh environments, ideal for water utilities operating across vast areas where wired connectivity would be extremely challenging or cost-prohibitive.

LoRaWAN wireless wide-area networking provides secure communications between remote sensors, devices, and enterprise-grade public and private networks for IoT, industrial, and “smart city” applications. Embraced by industry leaders like Comcast, IBM, Cisco, and others, LoRaWAN and its communications protocols have become an open global standard supported by more than 500 industry leaders. In use by a number of public network operators and included in many trial and deployments, LoRaWAN is rapidly emerging as a new industry standard for water utilities.

“Many water utilities simply cannot imagine some of the unforeseen challenges and specialized needs they will be facing in two years, much less five years, or ten years down the road. So why would they lock themselves into an infrastructure management system that can’t keep up with their needs?” says Mueller Systems’ Butler. “An AMI system based on LoRaWAN technology will read your meters today, monitor pipeline leaks tomorrow, and perform real-time water quality analysis next year if you need it. These new IoT-based AMI systems create ‘smart utilities’, yet support everything from monitoring parking meters to tracking pets. The potential uses are endless.”

“Open standards” AMI systems

Wirelessly connected AMI water distribution components are providing unexpected solutions to long-standing problems. Shortly after Pennsylvania American Water acquired a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre-area utility two decades ago, the utility discovered a number of service problems and billing disputes involving several neighborhoods with water service lines originally installed in an unusual “shared service” arrangement.

 Instead of the typical installation with each property connected by a separate service line and dedicated shutoff valve, multiple properties in these neighborhoods were sharing a single service line controlled by a single curbside shutoff valve. The utility could not shut off water service to one resident without interrupting service to adjacent neighbors — and some customers who believed they were safe from service disconnection actually stopped paying their water bills.

“The only remedy a few years ago for these kinds of infrastructure mistakes was to retrofit new service lines and shutoff valves throughout entire neighborhoods, an undertaking that was far too costly just to avoid problems with service disconnections and non-paying customers,” says David Hughes, infrastructure engineer with water and wastewater public utility American Water. “However, our new AMI network enabled us to completely sidestep the need to retrofit new service lines and shutoff valves in those Scranton/Wilkes-Barre neighborhoods, and the remote-disconnect AMI water meters gave us full inside-the-meter control over water service in areas where we previously had virtually no control at all.”

In contrast to older AMI systems based on proprietary technologies using undisclosed software coding methods, emerging next-generation AMI systems are designed to “open standards,” developed using freely available “open source” software code and algorithms. Shared and maintained by multiple industry vendors using “open architecture” design, standards-based development encourages open collaboration between utilities, industry vendors, and service providers, and simplifies adding, upgrading and integrating system components to a standards-based AMI system.

“A standards-based AMI system enables utilities to focus on their core water distribution business, get out of the communications networking business, and quickly deploy or integrate the right tool when needed,” says John Marciszewski of Echologics, provider of EchoShore® pipeline leak detection and monitoring technology to American Water.

A pipeline leak monitoring and detection platform for water distribution systems, EchoShore technology uses battery-powered monitoring “nodes” incorporating ultra-sensitive acoustic sensors to detect and pinpoint water leaks long before they become detectable by conventional detection methods. Echologics is developing a toolkit that enables LoRaWAN users to make EchoShore technology interoperable over an AMI/LoRaWAN network, enabling utilities to quickly integrate and deploy the leak-monitoring platform — or interchangeably deploy a different solution.

“Utilities implementing a standards-based AMI network are no longer locked into customized and proprietary solutions from a single provider, and open standards enables utilities to choose freely among third-party manufacturers and vendors offering AMI products and technologies,” says Marciszewski. “Older AMI systems have limited capabilities, but having an open communications protocol enables compatibility with thousands of different products and applications. Could you imagine having your smartphone limited to running only five different applications?”

“Smart Cities” vision

Standards-based AMI networks with LoRaWAN connectivity have the potential to fulfill the “Smart Cities” vision for transforming tomorrow’s urban landscape. Using IoT technologies to link, monitor, and control all aspects of municipal services, including electrical grid and natural gas consumption, smart roads and traffic control, environmental monitoring and safety, structural health, water leakage detection, water quality monitoring, automated waste management, and more.

“The water industry is just getting started with Internet of Things technologies,” says Cheryl Norton, president of Missouri American Water. “We are behind some other industries and we have a lot of work to do, but is very exciting to be on the technology forefront, and discovering new ways for our industry to operate more efficiently and conserve and protect our precious water resources are the key elements of our industry future.”

Norton notes that the new standards-based AMI systems also have the potential to provide utilities with a robust cyber-security program. “Utilities that don’t have a cyber-security program absolutely need take a step back right now and come up with a plan, because ignoring cyber-security could cause a complete downfall of our industry.”

Standards-based AMI networks also have the potential to be a unifying technology capable of simultaneously serving multiple types of utilities with a single infrastructure communications network, providing the seamless interoperability needed for tomorrow’s “water-energy nexus.”

“Ultimately, all utilities — water, power, and gas — are serving the same ratepayer. So why are we requiring ratepayers to support three or four different systems in the same area?” asks NJ Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden, who is also National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ (NARUC) Water Committee Chair.

“If it can be done all in a single platform, and some areas are already initiating projects for sharing a single AMI network among local water, power and gas services,” Commissioner Holden continued, “Don’t limit your vision. Include future ‘Smart City’ capabilities into your utility, municipality, or regional planning instead of limited-capability infrastructure management systems.”

David Stewart Jones is a freelance writer and researcher based in Toronto, Canada. Correspondence can be addressed to fri@missouri.edu, or emailed to davidstewartjones@outlook.com.

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