Case Study

The Utility Of Location: How Spatial Analytics Saved A Water Company Thousands

By Dave Wachal, Esri

Today’s data driven utilities are paving the way for smart water systems through their use of location intelligence. Location influences all aspects of managing water — from protecting a sustainable supply to delivering safe drinking water. At Esri’s upcoming User Conference, which brings together more than 18,000 geographic information system (GIS) professionals from across the globe, utility companies will gather together to share successes and best practices regarding the myriad ways instituting spatial analytics technology has benefited their operations.

One such user, Opelika Utilities, located in Alabama and serving nearly 20,000 customers, has been a leader in demonstrating how location intelligence can help water utilities better serve their bottom line. With a focus on improving operational efficiency, Opelika Utilities took a closer look into potential revenue issues and how to find solutions that would help the utility increase profits more efficiently.

A Dead Meter Is An Expensive Meter

While many water utilities are concerned about water loss due to leaky pipes, losses of this kind at Opelika are well under acceptable industry standards. Opelika’s concern revolved around nonoperational “dead meters.” If water meters are not working, customers cannot be properly billed for their usage. This results in lost revenue for the water utility. Identifying these so-called dead meters is also a time-consuming process.

For years, Opelika Utilities employed a manual process to identify potential dead meters as well as extremely high and low monthly meter readings, which can often be signs of leaks or meters that aren’t properly tracking the amount of water actually being used. Every month, an office-based team member would spend at least eight hours reviewing the meter reports. This involved painstakingly combing through 14,000 daily readings on a spreadsheet, line by line, to find those that were potentially nonoperational. The meticulous and time-consuming process led to an estimated revenue loss of $150,000 annually. Opelika needed a modernized method for reviewing and analyzing meter readings, allowing them to automatically generate work orders to review nonoperational meters and share results with stakeholders.

Location Is Money

Opelika needed to identify dead meters quickly, even if in some cases location information was limited.  The location intelligence technology they chose was Esri’s ArcGIS Insights, an off-the-shelf solution which requires no previous GIS experience or coding ability. Opelika imported all relevant data sourced from their billing department as well as hundreds of thousands of records on service connections, meter usage, as well work order history and data from the utility’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, making it easier to identify dead meters. The utility was then able to perform quick analysis, produce illustrative maps and charts, and share that information with managerial staff. As an added bonus, because the platform is able to record workflows, Opelika can rerun this analysis monthly.

ArcGIS Insights also made it simple to visualize the results, which were eye-opening.  Out of 14,000 meters, more than 3,000 (between 20 and 25 percent) were dead. This translated into an estimated $25,000-per-month loss in revenue, or $300,000 per year.

This was a much higher loss than Opelika Utilities had expected and pointed to a larger problem. Using location intelligence, Opelika Utilities could do further analysis to discern patterns in dead meters and even identify specific manufacturers, model numbers, and when those specific meters were installed. It turned out that most of the issues were occurring in meters from a single manufacturer that were being installed in new housing developments. The good news was that all these problematic meters were still under warranty, and therefore, replacing the majority of them would bear Opelika Utilities no additional equipment costs.

Building Smarter Utilities

Eventually, each meter will become a “dead meter” due to a manufacturer defect, age, or damage, and will require maintenance or replacement. The power of being able to connect meter usage with billing and service requests can help utilities identify the extent of their equipment problems. And with the power of location intelligence, this process can be replicated repeatedly, meaning utilities can use spatial analytics technologies to identify and curb all issues causing them to lose money.

Location intelligence won’t just improve the ways individual utility companies respond to issues in their communities; it will change how organizations in electricity, gas, and even telecommunications meet the expectations of a changing infrastructure system that is becoming more connected. Advanced capabilities like spatial analytics will help companies understand their networks across their organizations, at a rate of speed not seen in the past. In addition, they will be able to use this location-based insight to add greater value to their workflows, create new solutions allowing personnel to be more efficient, and to better satisfy the needs of their customers.