How Smart-Water Technology Gets Invented
Recently I was invited by Sensus, a global provider of utility infrastructure technology, to tour its research and development (R&D) facility at Research Triangle Park in Morrisville, N.C. As I reported in May, Sensus is a key innovator in the growing field of smart-water management, sometimes referred to as “smart water grid,” with a nod to the metering and grid technologies that are revolutionizing the business of electric utilities.
The 60,000-sq-ft Sensus Research and Development Center is home to about 160 employees working on innovative technologies in advanced metering for water, gas, and electricity. Designers and engineers at the facility work on network architecture, development, testing, product development, and design for software, hardware, and firmware. In the U.S., Sensus has two manufacturing sites, four development sites and the company headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. The company has manufacturing facilities also in Brazil, Chile, Algeria, China, South Africa, the Czech Republic, and other countries.
For my visit at Sensus, I was hosted by Dan Pinney, director of advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) development at Sensus, who walked me through the R&D facility and gave me an overview of the technologies his company uses for helping utilities deploy smart-water management.
Pinney explained to me that a Sensus smart-water network depends on radio-frequency (RF) communications embedded in water meters and broadcast to fixed base stations, usually tower gateway base stations (TGBs) located on water towers. Usage data are then fed into a centralized network control system Sensus has developed, called Regional Network Interface (RNI). RNI is run at a data center typically equipped with blade servers running Sensus software. Sometimes the RNI is owned by the utility if it has sufficient internal IT resources; sometimes it is contracted through Sensus itself.
Prior to 2005, Pinney told me, water-meter technology hadn’t advanced much in a hundred years. “Only recently,” he explained, “has it become cost-effective to have electronic metering in a utility application.” In 2009, Sensus released a device called iPERL, an advanced battery-powered meter with no moving parts, designed to provide two-way communication between the end-point and the network, and engineered to function for 20 years. “Already there are more than a million installed,” said Pinney. “That has radically changed what a meter is supposed to do in the field.”
Sensus’s systems are now operating at more than 250 fixed-base (FB) water sites in the U.S. and Canada, with growing installations outside North America. Sensus sees its most promising overseas markets in the U.K. and Brazil.
By obtaining and monitoring the readings from multiple meters on the network, a utility can identify larger patterns through data analysis. Such capabilities can help the utility monitor and correct water loss. Water conservation, said Pinney, is a key driver of smart-water technology adoption. Besides the straight loss of water, often 20 percent, that loss also involves a cost in wasted energy. “The energy that a water utility takes to move all this around is one of their largest expenses.”
The systems for measuring flow and reading meters don’t constitute smart water, Pinney believes: “Smart water is control of the system — how you’re actually going to save money in the distribution of that water. When you start adding pressure sensors, temperature sensors, and really managing the leaks throughout the whole system, as well as managing the overall system with this new control mechanism, that’s where the efficiency gain really comes from.” In other words, the biggest economic benefit from smart-water management is the leverage you get from the control system and the unprecedented system-wide management capabilities it gives you.
Designing Smart Water
Pinney walked me through the Sensus development facility, introducing me to some of the people at work developing smart-water systems and let me look over their shoulders a bit. We visited the embedded systems, product engineering, product management, and mechanical systems groups. As a device in development moves from one stage to the next, each group adds its own knowledge and expertise to the product.
Design of Sensus system architecture begins at the embedded-systems stage, said Pinney: “It’s really important to be able to not only build the devices but verify the devices… [The embedded systems designers] are not only building the device, they build the test fixture and all the embedded software and software that drives it, so that the development cycle is a lot faster. And then, as we move through system test and manufacturing test and quality, they’re building on that equipment.”
Sound mechanical engineering is key to the success of Sensus’s smart-water technologies, especially considering the rough conditions under which they have to operate. “The communications is not that hard,” Pinney stressed. “It’s done all the time. Everybody has a cell phone. Making two-way communications is not that difficult. But making two-way communications that lasts for 20 years? Without recharging, and without any battery replacement, and submerged in the ground? That’s tough, and that’s what these guys are doing.”
Sensus’s own manufacturing operations are primarily dedicated to its mechanical devices. Pinney told me that nearly all manufacturing of electronic devices is outsourced to large tier-1 manufacturers such as Jabil, Flextronics, or Foxconn. However, because of the unique nature of Sensus’s products and performance requirements, the company designers and engineers are deeply involved with its contract manufacturers.
When it comes time to build and testing new devices, Sensus’s developers move into the company’s lab, filled with work benches and test equipment. Pinney showed me an impressive array of test equipment employed to subject devices to the kinds of environmental stresses they will have to face out in the elements. Test equipment is available to simulate extremes of temperature, electrostatic discharge, electromagnetic radiation, power surges, and other kinds of disruptions that can affect the performance of electronic devices.
Because of the 20-year lifetime requirement, battery quality is mission-critical. “These are not your standard batteries,” Pinney told me. All of the electronics, including the battery for a device, are sealed inside a protective high-density polyethylene (HDPE) housing. “You can’t allow any moisture to penetrate. It’s 20 years, and it’s 20 years submerged out in your front yard, so it can be totally full of water, it can be surrounded by sand, so you can’t allow anything inside there. So there’s no maintenance on the electronics themselves. So that battery’s got to last. It’s a very specific chemistry, and, most important, the construction of that battery is not trivial.”
Pinney also walked me through the facility’s quality, manufacturing test, certification, tech support, training, and software groups. The technology around water meters has gotten more complicated in recent years, so Sensus has several full-time staff dedicated to training, not just for customers, but internally for product and sales people as well.