Customer smartmeters for the water industry have been around for some time, but have failed to gain much traction, despite the best efforts of suppliers and utility side metering groups alike. Defining the “business case” for deploying smartmeters in terms that make them competitive against other capital expenditure has failed. Is this is a case of a solution looking for a problem?
In pure terms of capturing data for customer billing, in most urban environments smartmeters will never stack up financially against having a person manually read the meter each billing cycle. Unless the cost of smartmeters falls by more than half, manually reading the meter four to six times per year over ten years will still be a lot cheaper than the additional cost of upgrading to a smartmeter.
The other problem is that water is cheap. Trying to justify smartmeters from the point of view of water savings or improvements in planning and capital deferral is even harder. There are so many other ways that this can be achieved without using smartmeters.
But maybe smartmeters are really just a cost of doing business. At the other end of the water delivery cycle, the installation of flowmeters and other sensors are rarely questioned from a business benefit point of view; it is simply expected that they will be installed and that the information will be used somehow to benefit the business.
And then there is the question of customer and regulator expectations as to how a utility should be operating. The creation and monitoring of websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and the like have been readily adopted by water utilities, along with many other companies and government services. I doubt there has been a thorough rationalisation of the business cost-benefits of managing these information streams, rather it is simply expected that it will be done.
So where does that leave smartmeters? As a metering device or a customer engagement tool they appear to be neither fish nor fowl, essentially falling down the crack between the operations and revenue sides of the utility business. But rather than building a case for smartmeters, perhaps we are better off building a case for smarter business that meets the expectations of customers and regulators. And if that business needs to account for water in real-time, effectively manage tax accruals, drive customer water efficiency, improve worker safety and streamline its billing and revenue collection, then smartmeters must just be part of doing business.