Water Wiser

New smart water meters aimed at spotting leaks before bills climb

Say you forgot and left your drip hose watering your garden last night. How close did that bring your usage to the 10,000-gallon mark? Or your teenager has been indulging in lengthy showers. How much water does that use? Or doing laundry? The dishwasher? Or maybe you’ve weathered a leak and subsequently a water bill in a dollar amount that stings. How do you know the same thing won’t happen again?

The City of Santa Fe's decision to replace its Firefly water-meter readers, installed just under 10 years ago and now largely known for their failings, aims to do more than provide the billing basics for how much water was used in a month. The online system that accompanies the new Badger smart water meters provides hourly readings in near-real time, allowing users to track consumption down to one-tenth of a gallon within 24 hours. The project is expected to cost $6 million for the equipment and installation of 36,000 meters, and an additional $2 million for service, software maintenance and cell tower space for signal transmission over the 10-year contract.

"One thought is, let's just go back to manual reads, let's not bother with these things anymore," says Public Utilities Department Director Nick Schiavo, who says he's received complaints about Firefly since the day he arrived on the job two years ago. "But honestly, when you see some of the leaks that happen on the customer side and the money it costs them, we knew we needed to have a system that would alert the customer, because people in the town are paying a premium for water, and they deserve a system that's going to give them some kind of warning when something's gone wrong."

One big selling point for Badger was the ability for water users to set up text message alerts to let them know if water has been running continuously for 24 hours, perhaps due to a leak.

Customers who choose to can view their water use from their computer or smartphone and can also receive text message alerts when water consumption is approaching the amount that triggers a higher per-1,000-gallon rate.

"Allowing people to see their own water usage and understand it is really a first step toward allowing them to manage that use," says Councilor Peter Ives. "We talk a lot down at City Hall about the adage 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it,' so certainly our hope, too, is by making the understanding of one's water use available to the home on a frequent basis, folks will be able to manage their own water use better."

Ives and Councilor Patti Bushee currently have Badgers running on their houses; the meters are reporting data back to the Public Utilities Department in a test-run of what the system will look like at the start of 2016, when it goes live for many of the city's water users.

And what does it show? Ives' drip irrigation system running in conjunction with a weather station on his house may need some calibrating; as of June 26, he was just past the 10,000-gallon mark for monthly use. If he'd known, he says, he'd have shortened watering times, perhaps cut back a day and reassessed whether the plants put in last year can make do with a little less water.

Bushee's use so far this year peaked in May with just over 3,000 gallons.

The city installed the Firefly devices on 34,000 accounts, and now fewer than 10,000 are working, according to the Public Utilities Department. Schiavo says that with fewer meters to read after the installation, staff should have more time to run reports on possible leaks every morning and contact those account holders. The new meters operate off cellphone signals, which have proven unreliable along Upper Canyon Road and Upper Cerro Gordo, and so those users may still need to be checked by a meter reader, but the total meters needing an in-person visit is estimated to be closer to 300 when the project is done.

The whole process of replacing a meter reader takes about half an hour. Badger provides door hangers to let residents know when to expect the workers, who also knock on the door before starting to switch meters; water is shut off for about five minutes while the new meter is installed.

The new meters, which come with a 10-year warranty, are being installed around the city now, with 4,000 a month installed beginning this month and nearly 30,000 by the first of the year.

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