October 2, 2015 — By Andra Lim – American-Statesman

Luke Downs used 5 gallons of water cooking dinner and cleaning up afterward the other day.

It seems like such a simple piece of information, but obtaining it is anything but.

Attached to Downs’ water meter in his front yard is a transmitter that sends signals to the “BluCube” plugged into an electrical outlet in his home office. That cube, about 4 inches wide, contains a tiny computer, and in turn sends data via Wi-Fi to a server in a lab located not far from Downs’ home in the Mueller neighborhood.

Downs — one of at least 100 Austin Water customers participating in a pilot program that Austin-based nonprofit Pecan Street began about two weeks ago — can then open an app on his smartphone and see his water use by the hour from as recently as yesterday. Soon, the app will allow customers to see water use in real-time.

“If I figure out my shower head is like a fire hydrant, maybe I’ll change the shower head,” said Downs, who was surprised to learn that a recent shower might have used nearly 30 gallons. “I don’t really know, so this app will tell me to a greater degree or to some degree the water usage of each of the things in the house.”

Grant Fisher, data group director, left, and Brewster McCracken, CEO, right, of Pecan Street Inc., show a smart meter being developed at their company offices in Mueller. Supporters say smart water meters will boost conservation and provide more accurate readings of water use in real time.

Some Texas cities, from Round Rock to Houston, have already taken the plunge with smart meters that electronically transmit water use data. Such technology can cut down on the need for meter-readers, something Austin currently hires an outside firm to do for $3.6 million a year. Smart meters can also encourage conservation and allow customers to monitor their water use, proponents say, enabling them to spot leaks or high use sooner, before their water bill arrives in the mail weeks later.

Though Austin has long had smart meters for its electricity customers, such meters for water customers are likely some years away. The possible $75 million price tag is one obstacle, along with a host of technology logistics. Still, Austin Water has been studying the possibilities, and officials will soon consider whether to include smart water meters in a city spending plan for major projects over the next five years.

“At some point there will be a tipping point where the benefits will outweigh the risks,” said Rick Coronado, Austin Water’s assistant director of pipeline operations. “We’re not there yet. We’re definitely getting closer.”

One less problem
Smart water meters have lagged behind smart electric meters for many reasons, experts say — it’s harder to power them, there’s less money in water utilities, there aren’t unified standards in the water meter industry — but they might be starting to catch up.

Fort Worth, through a state loan program, is embarking on the first phase of what could be a citywide rollout of the technology. Several communities in California, in the midst of a drought, have also turned to smart water meters, said Kate Zerrenner, a project manager with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Bill Moriarty, chairman of the city’s water and wastewater commission, said Austin “is a community that has a huge appetite for stuff like this, a huge appetite for water conservation and a huge appetite for technology.”

By allowing consumers to track their water usage, proponents say, the technology can also help customers avoid a surprising spike in their water bill — like the recent high bills that prompted complaints from hundreds of Austin Water customers. (The utility maintains higher water use over the increasingly dry summer was to blame.)

The city of Round Rock, which upgraded meters over about six years at a cost of $7 million, also fielded hundreds of complaints recently. Some of the information from the smart meters was immensely helpful, Utilities Director Michael Thane said.

City workers were able to show customers the meters’ logs of water use in six-hour intervals, he said, demonstrating the meter was indeed reading zero when the customer was at work and not watering the lawn.

Thane said customers also realized for the first time that watering the lawn can take thousands of gallons. “Almost everybody, after seeing the information, they say, ‘Wow, you’re right’” and think about adjusting their watering habits, Thane said.

Not everybody trusts smart meter technology or cares to spend time reading up on their water use, though.

Justin Tanner, a Round Rock resident who lives in Oak Bluff Estates, said he began seeing irregularities on his water bill about three months ago, when the city installed a smart meter at his home.

Since then, he’s been paying $40 to $120 more for about the same water use, and his theory is that, as the city gleans information from his meter, something is going technologically awry.

What if he could access a Web portal – like the one Round Rock plans to make available to consumers — showing him more detailed data on his water use, such as how much water his lawn irrigation took?

“I don’t know if I’d really want to take the time to monitor that,” Tanner said. “As many things as I have going on in my life weekly, one less thing is better for me.”

‘What could go wrong?’
Pecan Street — started as a collaboration between the University of Texas, the city of Austin and tech companies — tests and develops ideas from university faculty and private companies in the real world, including pilot tests of smart water meters.

Six years ago, Pecan Street studied about 50 to 60 “all-in-one” smart water meters that replaced the old water meters at the homes of program participants. It was a dud: Many of the smart water meters just stopped working.

“The problem is you’re putting electronics into an underground pit with water. What could go wrong? A lot of things,” Pecan Street CEO Brewster McCracken said. “We found out these all-in-one meters that water meter companies were pushing were having failure rates that were far higher than the meter companies were saying they would have.”

The Chicago Tribune has reported on “chronic overcharging” and widespread, unexplained failures of smart meters in two Chicago suburbs.

Under the “Blue Cube” model designed by Pecan Street, a transmitter is placed on the existing water meter, and it sends information to a small blue box that would be kept in the customer’s home.
Under the “BluCube” model designed by Pecan Street, a transmitter is placed on the existing water meter, and it sends information to a small blue box that would be kept in the customer’s home.

From the Austin Water Utility’s standpoint, changes in smart water meter technology are “like playing basketball where the basket is moving too,” spokesman Jason Hill said. The utility, which will soon run its own pilot test of technology separate from Pecan Street’s, wants to make sure whatever technology it purchases won’t be considered antiquated soon after, Hill said.

The technology presents other challenges, said Coronado, the Austin Water assistant director. The city would need to figure out how to integrate the technology with the billing system, and it would need to bring on additional workers to handle the conversion, he said. Coronado also noted that different companies’ systems are incompatible, which makes investment more risky.

There’s also the question of equity, as not everyone has a computer or smartphone they could use to track information from smart water meters.

Michelle Maddaus, president at California-based Maddaus Water Management Inc. and a consultant recently hired by the city to do a conservation study, said some utilities have mailed out water reports to residential customers, either monthly or quarterly, that include information beyond what’s usually on a bill, such as how that customer’s usage stacks up to others with a similar-sized home.