This activity is at the center of all decision making and planning that the water provider/entity conducts. Data should be collected and stored in such a manner that it is safeguarded from damage or loss, accessible for inspection and evaluation, and utilized regularly to characterize trends and support management efforts.
Data collection and management related to customer water delivery should focus upon:
Customer meters should be read at a consistent time interval every month, or more often if possible (meaning with the use of electronic data collection methods) to support timely billings and data assessment; however, some organizations with limited resources may choose to collect customer meter reading every other month. It should nonetheless be the goal of all water utilities to collect monthly customer readings since the interval of meter readings relates directly to billings and cash flow, as well as the opportunity to provide customers with feedback on their individual water use (e.g., a leak on the customer side of the meter can be found, as can excessive water use, etc.).
Readings can be collected manually or with radio read devices. Manual readings require that the meter reader gain access to the meter for each reading. This activity can be complicated or even blocked by snow cover or other natural or manmade hindrances such as insects, dogs, snow pack, local flooding, etc. For this reason, manual meter reading can create lost work time injuries for staff or volunteers. Manual reading methods also can introduce errors related to data transcription both in the field and in the office where hand written notes are used for billings (either by hand or with the use of computer based software).
For these reasons, manual meter reading is not the best alternative for data collection and it is increasingly considered not to be a best management practice for rural water utilities that have large service areas, limited resources, and may be impacted by natural causes. Best management practices in rural settings, as well as towns and cities include leveraging the benefits of readily available technologies, which can reduce the cost of data collection, improve the accuracy of meter reading and support faster and more accurate billing. These technology solutions include, in order of least cost to highest cost:
As customer meters age, they tend to become inaccurate, slowly recording less water than is delivered creating an apparent loss of water (and a related loss in water sales revenue) for a water utility. For this reason, water utilities have reason to track meter age and replace meters that are not accurate. One operator at a small water company conducted bench testing of customer water meters for years and determined that the flow meters that his water utility used loss measureable accuracy when about 2 million gallons of water had been delivered through it. He developed a BMP whereby he tracked all the customer meters that were installed and the amount of flow that each passed, using that model to predict, and budget for, meter replacements. This method has proven to work well for his situation, noting that meters are also replaced whenever they are found to be non-functioning. Therefore, it is recommended that water utilities track meter age and volume of water passed through each meter as a means to predict meter replacement needs to support budgeting needs and meter replacement efforts.
In addition, it is valuable for the utility to track the age of all the service line appurtenances that relate to each customer connection, including backflow prevention device, pressure reducing value (PRV) and yoke since each of these items have an expected service life in the field. If AMR is installed, information related to battery age, and other equipment should also be tracked.
There is a number of typical water uses that may be unmetered, or metered and unbilled related to customer water use. These include those presented in the following list.
Municipal Uses – Many local water utilities provide water for municipal uses such as the town hall, the town shop and/or town parks without charge. Some of these connections are unmetered, and others are metered but either unread or read and unbilled. In all cases, the utility should be collecting these water uses, regardless of whether or not the uses are billed, since any municipal water that is not tracked and accounted for becomes an apparent loss associated with non-revenue water.
Unmetered/Metered Unbilled Uses – Water utilities may have some customers that have old connections that do not comply with more recent metering protocols associated with current policies. For example, in the past, some utilities installed meters inside of residences or commercial businesses. For some of these connections, it is possible that irrigation water is drawn for use prior to the meter. There are other examples of unmetered uses for churches, graveyards and schools in some locales. It is incumbent on the water utility to check for and remedy these types of unmetered connections. (Also see unmetered uses within the water distribution system discussion.)
Unauthorized Uses – There may be situations where water is being stolen or pilfered from the utility – either knowingly or unwittingly. For example, some utilities may allow water to be provided to a customer even if the meter is considered disconnected by the finance department. In this way, an unauthorized water use occurs because of a clerical error. In other cases, persons may knowingly steal water from the utility through cross-connections or other means. Rigorous tracking of water production and customer water use along with an effective water loss control program can help the utility track and remedy unauthorized uses.
Leaks/Leak Reporting – The utility should track the number of service line leaks (on both sides of the meter) and should include leak reports for all repairs (see water distribution system data collection and management BMP for methods on leak reporting). The utility should also estimate water loss related to each leak, even if it is after a customer’s meter.
The water utility should track costs related to meter testing, repair and replacement programs (including labor and materials), as well as the benefits that the utility receives from:
The utility should also improve its budgeting through improved prediction of meter replacements and upgrades based on improved data collection and management practices.
Mapping of Customer Connections
The water utility should maintain maps and drawings of their customer connections (locations and typical details for service connections). Any new construction or repair work should be tracked using GPS such that future work can be easily traced back to prior locations. Information included in the mapping/customer connection data should include:
These data can be collected and managed along with a database that was discussed in the data collection and management BMP presented for Water Delivery to Customers (see above).