Yarra Valley Water is upgrading water meters with new technology for about 1,000 properties in the Vermont South area in Melbourne, to better understand the value of digital water metering technology for its customers.
Water meter upgrades will occur over a month from August 2019, and will permanently replace existing water meters. The trial will run until early-mid 2020, during which time Yarra Valley Water will be monitoring the results to understand the benefits of a wider digital water meter upgrade program.
It is the first time that Yarra Valley Water has used digital water meters, although the utility began a remote meter reading trial in 2013. Data loggers were added to existing mechanical meters in Craigieburn, a satellite suburb in Melbourne’s north, providing Yarra Valley Water with near real-time information on water consumption in the area. The trial is still ongoing and has offered some valuable insights into potential hidden leaks.
Pat McCafferty, Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water, said that the main benefit for customers is giving them the opportunity to better understand their water use, which in turn helps them take action on their usage and possibly reduce their bills.
“I think control is certainly what’s most valued – people having a sense of control over their water use, and knowing when and how they’re using the most water is something of really high value,” Mr McCafferty said.
“In a country like Australia where climate change, drought and reduced water supply are significant challenges, the ability for people to track their water use, to have the information that enables them to better understand what small changes they can make to save water, is huge.
“The digital meters enable a more digital customer experience – customers can use their mobile phones to monitor their account and identify potential savings in near real time.
That’s the shift that’s starting to occur, it’s something people expect and get from most other service providers so they want to know when they’re going to get it for their water.
“Avoiding bill shock is also very important to us. We’ve got plenty of examples of people who have had a hidden leak, and if the meter reading doesn’t take place for eight weeks, they’ve received bills in the thousands. We obviously have programs where we help people with those bills, but both us and the customers would rather it didn’t happen in the first place.”
A tool for leak detection
Mr McCafferty said that the trial will not only enable significant breakthroughs in customer service, but will also help provide Yarra Valley Water with a full picture of how the network is performing.
“One of the old-fashioned things about our industry is that generally we need someone to tell us if something’s wrong. For example, a phone call to say there’s a burst water main or a leaking hydrant in the street, or there’s a sewage blockage or sewage spill into a waterway.
“Water is sometimes very low involvement because people just go about their day-to-day business, but they interact with the water and sewage systems so many times a day from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. It’s really only when something goes wrong that there’s that elevated consciousness of the value of the product.
“By having sensor technology that’s more cost effective and linking that up with the telecommunication networks, we have a much more visible proactive approach to our service than we’ve ever had before. I think it’s going to be fascinating for us in terms of how much data we’ll have, but we’ll have to be conscious about how we best use that data.
“My hope is that rather than a major burst having to occur in order for someone to ring us, and for us to get a crew out there, we’ll be able to get enough insight from the data coming back to us via the sensors and meters to say, ‘Looks like there might be an emerging issue with a water main in X street. Let’s get out there and have a closer look’.”
Consulting with customers
Yarra Valley Water will be following up with the digital metering trial participants to get feedback on how they found the installation process, how they used the information and whether they found it valuable, and if there are any opportunities to further improve the customer experience.
“We’ll be doing customer research all the way. Our expectations are that digital water meters are something that contributes to increased perceptions of value and higher customer satisfaction because of the benefits our customers receive. What we want to do with these trials is demonstrate that, but you need to track these things to prove the point,” Mr McCafferty said.
“Most of the concerns that we’ve come across stem from someone’s experience with an energy sector, their main question being ‘Do I have to pay more?’ We’re doing these trials to get the business case to the point where we know it won’t impact on customer bills, because we don’t want to impose digital metering at a cost to customers that people don’t value.
“Radio frequencies and their safety were also highlighted as a concern, but through the trials we can show people what a typical digital meter looks like and the frequency that it operates at, which is below the frequency of your average household item such as a wi-fi router – we can demonstrate the data and science behind it.”
A collaborative effort
Three metropolitan Melbourne water utilities — Yarra Valley Water, City West Water and South East Water — are working together to explore whether upgrading Melbourne’s existing meter fleet to digital water meters will provide value to customers, the community and utilities.
By combining the experience and technical capabilities of the three utilities, together with expert advice and checks, the Digital Metering Joint Program will be able to thoroughly assess if digital water meters are viable and how and when an upgrade to the meter fleet could occur.
The Vermont South digital metering trial is part of this program, and Mr McCafferty said that it is very useful to be able to compare notes.
“We want to make sure that when Melbourne does transition to digital water meters, that it’s a consistent experience across the city. We can leverage the power of working together by doing some things slightly differently to learn what works, and then adopt best of breed combinations.
“We’ve collaborated on understanding what customers value and what their expectations are around digital metering. We want to make sure that we’re listening to that, that we’re tailoring what we do to ensure that the customer experience of moving to digital water meters is a really positive one.”
Ultimately, if Yarra Valley Water was to replace all of its existing meters the case for digital water meters needs to stack-up financially, and support is required from customers, the Victorian Government and the Essential Services Commission.
Mr McCafferty explained that he doesn’t want to be implementing new technology just for the sake of it.
“Upgrading over 700,000 meters would be a significant undertaking and I wouldn’t downplay the importance of really effective engagement and communications around that,” Mr McCafferty said.
“Ultimately, the digital water meter is just one piece of a much broader suite of infrastructure that’s required to make it all work. Both the meter and the network need to integrate with our back-end systems, like our asset management and GIS systems. That’s a fair bit of technical work to make sure everything is working effectively and integrated.
“We’ll probably have to co-exist in parallel worlds while we transition from our older way of doing things, using legacy systems and manual processes, to more streamlined digital processes.
“It really is about focusing on what our customers need, rather than a technology solution looking for a problem – at the end of the day, we exist to serve our customers. We always had a commitment that we’re not going to do this because of technology, that it’s not going to be a technology driven project. The technology has to meet needs, solve customer problems and create more value.”