By Molly Kilmas
The EPA report from 2014 didn’t have good news for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).Its water system was experiencing an overall 48 percent unaccounted-for water loss.
EBCI Water and Sewer Manager Ethan Arch knew dated water meters were to blame – as many of the meters yielded inaccurate readings or didn’t work at all. It was time to replace the nearly 3,000 positive-displacement-type meters that had been in use for more than a decade throughout the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, and surrounding areas. Arch was determined to find a meter that would outlive his time with the department.
“I wanted to put in the new water meters and not have to replace them until someone eventually replaces me,” said Arch, who has been with the Cherokee water utility for 11 years. Sticking with the status quo and replacing the old meters with the same kind of technology wasn’t an option for the EBCI.
“The typical water meter loses 10 percent or more of its accuracy in the first decade of its life,” Arch said, “and, as time goes by, the inaccuracies can worsen by 40 percent or more. In our case, some of our water meters were 25 years old and were not registering at all. In the case of the meters not registering, an estimated read was generated, which is not ideal for our customers or the utility. It is evident that we needed to embrace better technologies for the long-term.”
Future-Proofing with Technology
Located deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, Cherokee is a sovereign nation with its own laws, elections, government and institutions. Although the nation has relationships with the United States federal government and the North Carolina state government, the Cherokees are self-governed and autonomous.
The EBCI landscape is a big part of the story. The town rests deep within a valley where most of the residents live; however, a number of people reside in the nearby hillsides and well into the mountains. The total area coverage is approximately 56,000 acres.
The Cherokee terrain is beautiful but poses a significant challenge for any fixed-network system. The ancient granite mountains are steep, rocky and tree covered. The weather can range from gorgeous summers to freezing winters. And, like much of the south, the region has been on the cusp of a drought for several years.
Decades ago, most residents were on private wells, however, Cherokee now has a water plant and four water distribution systems. The utility is subsidized in part by Indian Health Services, government agencies and the casino, and the goal is to become self-sustaining by the year 2030.
Given all of these factors, ECBI sought a technologically advanced, robust and scalable metering solution, with meter accuracy being the most important criteria in selection of the new system.
Meter accuracy would allow for a reduction in unaccounted for water and increase revenues, which would help the department to future-proof the system for long-term sustainability, among other benefits.
“To achieve our goal, we needed something different – a top-of-the-line, innovative and trusted solution for our water system,” Arch said.
In searching for a metering solution, the utility’s head engineer, Ken Green, attended the first-ever North American Water Loss Conference in 2016. There, Green learned about highly accurate water meters based on ultrasonic measurement. These state-of-the-art meters were made by Kamstrup Water Metering LLC, a Danish intelligent-metering solution company with North American operations in Roswell, Georgia – about 20 minutes north of Atlanta.
After the conference, Greene shared his findings with the team back in Cherokee. Meetings with Kamstrup and its local distributor, Fortiline Waterworks, and Cherokee were set in place. In these meetings, the EBCI team learned they could start with Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) and, when ready, implement Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).
“The EBCI actually wanted to go right to AMI. Although Kamstrup meters have dual AMR / AMI technology built in, at the time, AMI wasn’t available in the U.S.” said Jim Kiles, southeast U.S. regional sales manager for Kamstrup. “But, the EBCI was willing to grow with us and planned to implement the AMR solution, with the goal and plan to transition to AMI over time. They became one of our first customers on the platform.”
Before the EBCI signed on the dotted line, the team first wanted to visit Kamstrup’s global headquarters in Denmark and see for themselves how the meters are made. Unlike many manufacturers, Kamstrup utilizes some of the world’s most advanced robotics to assemble and package the meters.
“Automation provides a much higher level of quality than traditional manufacturing methods,” Kiles explained. “Human error during production is virtually eliminated, ensuring a tightly engineered product that is always made precisely and accurately.”
Also while in Denmark, Arch and his team learned of the company’s plans for future technologies. Kamstrup’s meters include a chip that enables software and firmware updates, so the meter and meter reading system evolve as new technology becomes available.
The visit’s dual purpose allowed Kamstrup an opportunity to learn more about the EBCI’s needs and work with them to develop and deploy technologies as their water system grows.
“What really struck me,” Arch said, “was when a Kamstrup engineer asked us where we saw our utility in 20 years. I said I saw us no longer looking at water loss and that we’d be self-sustaining. They said that we’ll be there much sooner than in 20 years, and that we’d be using technologies to proactively help our customers save money.”
Based on conversations and the trip to Denmark, the EBCI was convinced of Kamstrup’s existing solutions and commitment to the future. In 2017, Cherokee began replacing its entire meter population with Kamstrup ultrasonic flowIQ water meters through installation services provided by Fortiline Waterworks.
Since the installation, Cherokee has cut the number of “leak letters” sent to customers in half. Once the AMI installation is complete, a second audit will be conducted, and the EBCI expects to be able to update non-revenue water statistics annually.
“We’re generating more revenue with our new meters,” Arch said, “and this revenue will help us to prepare for the future, as we grow.”
Around the same time that the EBCI switched to Kamstrup meters, it also changed its billing software. The hyper-accurate meters, in combination with better software, are helping customers to know exactly what to expect from their water bill and how to plan ahead.
“It’s a real benefit, especially to those on fixed incomes,” said Talisa Bradley, the EBCI’s billing processor. She added, “With the meters in AMR mode, the readings come back before midnight on the first of the month – every month – no matter when our meter readers drive by the property.”
Prior to the installation of the Kamstrup meters, freezing rain was causing condensation inside some of the previously installed meters; over time, this leads to failures. Because the previously installed meters didn’t have technology built-in to report failure, the utility was unaware of a failing or missing meter until one of the utility employees found it. The Kamstrup meters, on the other hand, are withstanding the weather and water pressure. But should a Kamstrup meter fail, the system would notify the utility within hours.
Moving to AMI
With Kamstrup’s AMI infrastructure technology now available in the United States, the EBCI moved forward with the original plan of migrating from AMR to AMI and began taking the proper steps for implementing AMI in their territory. The first item that needed to be completed was a propagation study to determine feasibility of the solution against the challenging Cherokee landscape.
“We went straight in for a real-world stress test and located some of the toughest terrain first,” Kiles said. “Cherokee, because of the mountains and, in particular, the granite within the mountains, is one of the most difficult terrains to establish an AMI system.
It’s basically a ‘radio versus rock’ scenario. We’d heard that other meter manufacturers wouldn’t even attempt AMI in this area for fear of failure. But, if Kamstrup can get AMI to work in this terrain, we can get AMI to work anywhere.”
Almost immediately, the technology detected a 3.72-gallon-a-minute leak at a residence. “We were able to get in there and fix it for the customer,” Arch said. The propagation study was successfully completed before the end of 2019 with plans for full AMI deployment by end of May 2020.
Forward Thinking, Future Proofing
The utility has begun talking about an affordable monthly subscription service for customers that would provide 24/7 call-service protection in the event of a significant leak or pipe burst.
“I’m starting to see the vision of the Kamstrup engineer in Denmark when he was explaining how technology will help us, the utility, to better serve our customers,” Arch said.
Arch envisions a customer portal that will enable customers to view their water usage in real time and make adjustments based on need. The portal also could help people to conserve water during drought conditions.
“AMI will make our planning more predictable, and it will improve the way our customers view water by empowering them to catch leaks on their properties to minimize subsequent damage,” he said.
Because Kamstrup is a data provider and not a proprietary system, it’s easy to integrate with system-wide technologies. “It’s about future proofing as the system and population served continue to mature and grow,” Kiles said.
It’s important to note that the utility’s successes have caught the attention of other tribal councils around the United States. Arch said he’s heard from peers seeking advice on how to implement successful innovative water meters – either AMR or AMI – in their own water systems.
“We’re thinking a lot differently than we did just a few years ago, and we’re happy to share our experiences, because Kamstrup definitely delivers on the solution they promise,” Arch said.
This article was written by Molly Kilmas of IntentPR on behalf of Kamstrup Water Metering, LLC.