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Water Wednesday: Smart grid gains ground with water managers

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Water Wednesday: Smart grid gains ground with water managers; School district cuts consumption via performance contract

Contributor's Note: This is an ongoing column in water sustainability, consumption and management issues. The rationale is simple: water is a more urgent priority for corporate social responsibility programs and becoming more so every day.

Don't forget, the smart grid applies to water, too
According to technology company Sensus, more water utilities are investing in smart grid applications for managing water. A survey conducted by Sensus during the recent America Water Works Association conference found that more than 70 percent of the respondents had a smart water system deployment under way, compared with 60 percent in the prior year's study. There were approximately 200 respondents.

Based on the results being seen by some Sensus customers, the fact that more water utilities are opting for smart meters isn't all that surprising. The company reports that one of its customers, Santa Maria, California, saved more than 2 million gallons of water after installing the Sensus AquaSense intelligent water management technology.

Notes Mike Tracy, executive vice president for Sensus, North America:

"Water utilities and municipalities across the country are looking for ways to strike the right balance between consuming and conserving water. They must manage the rising costs of energy, capture lost revenue and support new customer service expectations. AquaSense helps utilities do that by building on technologies commonly associated with the electric smart grid, but with an approach that focuses on the specific challenges and opportunities facing water utilities."

I spoke with Sensus customer Leland Cable, water/wastewater superintendent for the City of Garden City, Kansas, about some of the benefits that his 28,000-person municipality is seeing from Sensus technologies. The company began piloting smart and automated meter technologies about two years ago, and it finished installing the Sensus solution in December 2010, said Cable. In all, there are about 8,300 meters total in the city that are no being tracked with the Sensus platform.

One of the most valuable features of the Sensus platform has been the city's ability to detect leaks in the system, which cost about $3.3 million to deploy. Several business customers had no idea that there were issues, until they started studying the data collected via the Sensus FlexNet advanced metering infrastructure. In other cases, the water department has been able to discuss specific reasons that certain bills are higher. For example, one homeowner had forgotten that his soaker hoses were on for several hours in the middle of the night.

Another major benefit is the ability to check in on the city's wells, which is particular important given the drought situation affecting 14 U.S. states, including Kansas. Cable said the technology has allowed him to take daily readings, rather than monthly readings like he did in the past.

Cable said:

"Our water customers have given positive feedback that the new meters are identifying leaks they were previously unaware of. We are in the process of using the information gathered by the FlexNet system to identify and repair leaks throughout our distribution system."

The city expects a return on its investment, which also included applications for managing electricity consumption, within three years.

Washington school cuts water consumption by more than half
Performance contracts aren't just for electricity: the Belfair Elementary School in Washington state worked with energy services contractor Ameresco Quantum to reduce its water usage by 57.9 percent.

The reduction was part of an overall energy savings performance contract undertaken with the North Mason School District. That effort included the installation of more efficient toilets, urinals and faucet aerators in every lavatory in the school; this upgrade was made without a large capital investment, due to the way the performance contract is structured. Under performance contracts, the money saved in utility costs is generally put toward covering costs over the term. The director of operations for the district, Ed Lucas, noted about the water savings:

"Since the school is due to hook-up to the sewer system and the fees will be based on the new lower water usage, the utility estimates that the water savings measures will provide an additional $18,000 in reduced hook-up fees. The reduced fees are definitely a nice bonus."

Overall, the district is offsetting approximately $795,000 of more than $1.4 million in energy efficiency initiatives by using state grants and utility incentives.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure