For the Griffith University researchers examining the benefits of digital water meters, their work became personal when one of them recently received a high usage letter from their water business following their quarterly meter reading.

An early leak alert from a digital meter would have saved most of the 92kL above normal usage, and the cost of $360 for water and $70 for the sewage disposal charge. The affected researcher experienced the same angst faced by hundreds of customers every quarter, paying plumbing charges for leak detection and repair, making calls to the water business and hoping for a high usage leak allowance.

Smaller Australian water businesses like Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Mackay Regional Council have rolled out digital meters, while others like Coliban Water and TasWater have rollouts in progress. But Australia’s largest water businesses have yet to go beyond trials of digital meters. One of the biggest factors delaying citywide rollouts has been that cost-benefit studies have failed to identify sufficient benefits to cover costs. Completed economic studies often fail to stack up since they include only a limited number of benefit categories, and water businesses have not yet been able to articulate the full range of benefits for them and/or struggle to monetize those benefits.

A comprehensive study was commenced in 2018 to look into benefits not normally considered by water businesses. This study sought to reveal all potential benefits through a literature review of deployments across the world, reviews of annual reports and other water business publications, and structured interviews with 52 industry specialists and some customer representatives. Importantly, the experts surveyed covered a broad spectrum of departments within water businesses to ensure that all benefits could be captured.

The study resulted in a list of 75 benefits. These were classified into those benefiting the water business or the customer, or both. A taxonomy was developed (pictured). This placed the benefits into categories and sub-categories, and prompts water businesses to deeply examine their own operation to identify whether the benefits are relevant and to what extent. The complete results of the study were published open access in MDPI Water.

Among the 57 business benefits, some were previously captured benefits such as water conservation, operational cost and capital cost savings. However, many others were not previously considered benefits, such as: new opportunities for cost savings through the development of new algorithms; gaining efficiencies through improved knowledge of customer segments; increased knowledge of non-residential customers’ water usage patterns; and savings from the better management of disputed bills, Ombudsman referrals and customer credit.

Water businesses often narrowly focus on leak alerting as the primary benefit for customers. But the researchers found 40 benefits, where customers benefit directly, with 22 of these also benefiting the water business. These include vacant property monitoring, flexible tariffs, reduced water theft and regulation (restriction) compliance. Leak alerting will do more than just save the customer from wasting money; the number of insurance claims for water damage from concealed leaks would be expected to reduce when leaks are identified early. Hardship cases leading to bill write-offs and plumbing assistance can be expected to reduce, and digital metering and customer portals can enable a greater understanding of water inefficiencies within the home. These can include showering practices, use of dishwashers and clothes washers, and, in southern states of Australia, evaporative coolers. Instant demand management engagement with customers will undoubtedly reduce media marketing budgets in times of drought.

But other opportunities present themselves when meter reading are taken more frequently. Providing a monthly billing service is simplified and the need for payment plans reduces along with the administrative effort. Enabling invoicing on customer nominated days that fit the household budgeting cycle can be expected to improve on-time payment collections.
With Australians increasingly turning to strata properties (2.0M lots in 270K properties) the efficient management of multiple water accounts and common water usage requires Owners Corporation Managers and water businesses to work together when anomalies such as leaks and possible cross connections between fire services and potable water occur. Digital water metering is the first step towards more efficient processes.

The move to digital metering is starting to get personal for customers. And the experts agreed, customer satisfaction and their goodwill towards water businesses will be raised through the delivery of benefits from digital water meters.

Mr Ian Monks – Griffith University
Prof. Rodney Stewart – Griffith University
Dr. Oz Sahin – Griffith University
Dr. Robert Keller – Monash University

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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