Satellite Communications for Water Metering and other Water Applications

Anu Sood, SkyWave Mobile Communications

Like many other water utilities, Rural Water District No. 1 in Washington County, Kansas has the challenge of reading water meters and managing water sources spread across large areas of land. With 650 rural customers located across a service landscape of nearly 500 square miles, having district employees read each meter every month is a time-consuming task.

While self-read systems allow customers to call and mail in their meter reading every month, thereby reducing the need for water district employees to drive to individual sites, the challenge is to get customers to read their meters on time and accurately for proper billing. There is also the issue of lost water, delayed payments, and the difficult task of collections.

Washington RWD 1 had another challenge in addition to getting accurate meter readings every month for billing. Their infrastructure is prone to leaks due to the miles of 1.5-inch solvent weld PVC pipelines used in the distribution system. Originally installed in the mid-70s, the system has undergone 884 repairs between 2006 and 2012, with 142 of those in 2012.

skywave2Satellite Meter Reading System
The District was looking for a way to quickly detect leaks due to breaks in pipelines as well as automate meter reading to reduce the need to rely on self-read systems.  Given the great distances in their jurisdiction, Washington RWD 1 opted for satellite water meter reading units provided by South Dakota-based IDT.

This meter reading system uses SkyWave satellite messaging terminals to communicate with the satellite constellation. The system downloads and sends water readings from each meter at the same time each day. Thresholds and triggers are programmed into individual customer meters to alert the District when consumption is above normal for some period of time. This allows the District to call individual customers to check their site for potential leaks or failures.

In one case the District called a business customer to let them know that they had used hundreds of gallons of water on a Sunday. The business was not open on that day nor was there anyone on location, so the usage was exceedingly and unexplainably high. Upon inspection it was found that a toilet ball valve had failed and water had been flowing continuously. Had the break gone undetected for a longer period of time, the consumer would have been very surprised when they received their next water bill.

Nearly 200 of Washington RWD 1 customers have agreed to pay the $10 per month to have their meters automatically read by the satellite meter reading system. The overwhelming support of the system helped the RWD Board and Management add the policy that those who opt for self-read meters must report a reading by the 15th day of the month or be subject to a meter-reading fee.

More Satisfied Satellite Meter Reading Customers
Washington RWD 1 is not the only water district to reap the benefits of satellite meter reading. West River/Lyman-Jones RWS in South Dakota has also been using the IDT system to reduce their costs and increase their ability to detect leaks. Like Washington RWD 1, this district also has customer experiences that have helped quickly justify their investment in the satellite system.

During one week West River/Lyman-Jones employees noticed above normal flows in the Saddle Butte service area north of Midland, quite far from both district offices.  Rather than jumping into their service trucks, they logged onto the IDT web-based meter site and realized that one service connection had used 10,000 gallons of water in 24 hours.  In this case, rural water was flowing into a private well at a high flow rate. The ability to quickly isolate the problematic service connection saved them service travel mileage and man-hours in investigating the source of the problem.  Also, the rural water user saved hundreds of dollars on their subsequent water bill.

Satellite for Municipal Water SCADA Applications
In addition to metering, satellite technology is being used in other municipal water applications. One mid-sized city opted for satellite for reporting alarms and telemetry information at a biofilter site.

Biofilters are critical pieces of public infrastructure that process the hydrogen sulfides gases that form in the sewage system.  If these gases are not processed, they corrode and reduce the lifecycle of sewage pipes.  They work by first humidifying the gases, and then pumping them into an environment where they can be decomposed by live microorganisms.

The operations manager for the site was concerned about 3 things:

  1. “Are the fans working?”  If the fans are not working, gases will not be pulled into the humidifier.
  2. “Is the humidifier working?”  If the humidifier stops working, the biochemistry process stops and the gases make their way through the biofilter without being processed.
  3.  “Is the biofilter at the right temperature?” If the temperature drops too low, the microorganism becomes dormant and the gases will not be processed.

To answer these questions, the city turned to SkyWave’s SCADAconnect to provide connectivity to site SCADA systems and have visibility into the operations of the biofilter site.

Connecting Remote PLCs with Enterprise Applications
SCADAconnect is a three-part product that includes an asset gateway that quickly connects to remote PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and RTUs (Remote Terminal Units) to extract data; a communication modem for relaying data from remote sites to enterprise applications; and an enterprise gateway to interpret the data from remote sites and insert them into the SCADA HMI (Human Machine Interface) system.

The asset gateway allows customers to not only extract data from the PLC but also to provide the edge analytics portion where only relevant information is sent to the SCADA HMI system. For example, the operations manager is only notified when the fan speed changes by 5%. Anything below that is not reported, thereby reducing communication costs and “data overload’ syndrome.

If the operations manager wants to check the fan speed at any time, he is able to poll the biofilter station to ensure that it is working. This functionality is enabled by the communication modem, which supports two-way communications, unlike traditional auto-dialers.

A SkyWave satellite messaging terminal was chosen for this particular site because of connectivity requirements, but other sites could access the same level of functionality through the use of a cellular device.

At the desk of the operations manager, data from the biofilter site is now available for viewing using the city’s existing SCADA HMI system. The city did not have to upgrade or make any other changes to their system to be able to view the newly available information.

StormLink IDP Satellite TelemetrySatellite for Early Flood Warning
Between shifting weather patterns and human activity, forest fires are a frequent occurrence. Some fires have bigger impacts than others. On June 26, 2011, a tree fell on a power line in Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. The sparks immediately ignited the parched vegetation and started burning the forest at a rate of one acre per second. Dubbed The Las Conchas fire, the inferno burned parts of Bandelier National Monument, Santa Clara Pueblo and Cochiti Pueblo. By the time it was over an estimated 156,000 acres of land had been burned, making it the largest wildfire in New Mexico at the time.

The loss of vegetation from the fire was just one of the catastrophic outcomes. With much of the vegetation removed and the ground becoming hydrophobic (or vitrified), heavy rain in the Jemez Mountains in August 2011 led to flash floods. Although newly implemented flood protection had reduced damage to the recently renovated historic visitor center, many park trails had been severely impacted.

Post Wild-fire Water Level Monitoring
Knowing that it could take many years for the terrestrial ecosystem to recover, the agency responsible for maintaining the park needed to find a way to closely monitor the area’s water cycle. They were particularly concerned about heavy rains that could once again cause flash floods, thereby threatening lives and damaging property and park assets.

The agency turned to Colorado-based OneRain to provide several water level monitoring sites. Each consisted of a stream gauge connected to a SkyWave satellite messaging terminal and powered by a 10 watt solar panel.

One of the solution’s most important features is the ability to receive data from water gauges within 20 seconds of being collected and sent. The capabilities allow the local agency to quickly receive information that allows them to assess flood threat levels.

The solution was quickly tested for its effectiveness. On July 25, 2013, rains in the region led to a 17 foot high wall of water barreling through a local canyon towards the visitor center. Fortunately, real-time water level information allowed the local agency to mobilize flood protection measures in advance. The early warning ensured that no one was hurt and damage to the visitor center and surrounding areas was minimized.

Satellite – Growing Trend for Water Applications
The United States EPA states that on average 14 percent of the water treated by water systems is lost to leaks. Some systems have reported losses exceeding 60 percent. As water becomes scarcer, the need to closely monitor this vital resource is growing.

The use of satellite messaging terminals will also continue to grow in water monitoring applications. Aside from metering and level monitoring, this type of device is being used for weather monitoring for mining companies as well as water quality/quantity monitoring for utilities.

The reason these devices are ideal for water applications is that they are a highly cost-effective means of implementing a communication link in remote areas. They do not require any investment in radio infrastructure and line-of-sight issues are typically limited to “do we have a clear view of the sky?”

These terminals also provide the flexibility to be able to send as much data as the user wants to send when they need it. The ability to communicate with the remote site is also an attractive feature as it allows users to query statuses as well as control devices such as valves.

As potable water becomes more precious, the drive to monitor its availability will continue to grow and satellite messaging terminals will increasingly become a necessary part of the equation.

SkyWave Mobile Communications is a global provider of wireless data communications for the Machine-to-Machine (M2M) market. SkyWave’s products provide dependable communication, tracking, monitoring and remote management of fixed and mobile assets. For more information, please visit

Interested in learning more? Attend Anu Sood’s presentation at Remote 2013!

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