For Californians with traditional water meters, conservation is more or less a guessing game as they await their monthly bill detailing usage. But some utilities have done away with the guesswork by installing smart meters, which provide customers with real-time consumption data.
"It is such a critical tool for managing water consumption," said Lon W. House, a water and energy consultant who prepared reports on smart meters for the California Energy Commission.
The technology is generally two to three times more expensive than traditional meters but provides many benefits, House said.
Traditional water meters generally require city staff to visit each meter and record usage. Smart systems can reduce or eliminate that labor cost as well as allow water agencies to monitor usage and detect leaks, he said.
The smart meter market is being led by gas and electric utilities, but water agencies are close behind, House said. With increased pressure to conserve in California, he said, he thinks the devices will become more prevalent statewide.
A 2010 survey conducted by the Assn. of California Water Agencies of about 70 agencies showed that about 60% were considering or had plans to install smart meters.
A few Southern California water agencies have moved to smart meters, including Glendale and Burbank.
"You realize there's a lot of growing technology that can improve the operations," said Steve Zurn, general manager of Glendale Water and Power. "This opens up a whole new set of abilities for us."
Other agencies, such as the Long Beach Water Department, have installed a limited amount of the devices to supplement enforcement efforts, said General Manager Kevin Wattier.
"We had to find a technology to make this more efficient," Wattier said.
The utility originally installed smart meters only on residences with high usage rates, but Wattier said it decided to offer 100 smart meters to other customers on a first-come, first-serve basis. All were claimed within 24 hours, he said. Ten more have been installed at the city's discretion and 100 or more are scheduled to be installed in the coming weeks.
Traditional meters wear out and need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years. State law requires all California cities to install meters of some kind by 2025.
How do smart water meters work?
Smart meters collect data at regular intervals and transmit it, usually via radio, to a central location. The methods for doing so vary.
Long Beach's system collects data every five minutes and communicates via cellphone tower between midnight and 6 a.m. Glendale's system collects data every hour and delivers it during off-peak hours to wireless units that the city installed on power poles.
Most systems have a user interface that allows customers as well as agencies to log on to a website and view their usage information.
What are the benefits of smart water meters?
Smart meters have many benefits for customers and water agencies. For customers, the systems allow them to make informed conservation decisions. The meters allow agencies to reduce labor costs, improve enforcement efforts and enable leak detection.
In Long Beach, Wattier said, about 80% of complaints are related to outdoor irrigation. The smart meters have been a helpful enforcement tool, he said.
What are the risks of smart water meters?
Battery life is a major concern for water agencies considering a conversion, House said. Most manufacturers promise batteries will last 10 to 15 years.
What kind of cost is associated with smart meters?
Smart meters can cost two to three times more than traditional meters, House said.
When Glendale replaced 85,000 electric meters and 34,000 water meters in 2008, the project cost $70 million. It was partially funded by a $20-million grant from the federal Department of Energy and a $1-million grant from the California Energy Commission.
The smart meters cost $312 each and with installation constituted about $10.5 million of the total cost, Zurn said.
What kind of effect have smart meters had on water conservation?
It's difficult to measure the effect of smart meters in increasing water conservation.
Wattier said Long Beach has seen water usage decrease on a case-by-case basis for customers with smart meters. In one single-family home, a fixed irrigation problem reduced consumption by 70%, he said. In another case, a duplex reduced consumption by 98% after fixing a leak.