Hurricane Havoc: How Resilient AMI Systems Help Water Utilities Beat It

Organizations with the right kind of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in place have found that it can help with restoration after storms and more.

Hurricane season rolls around each year, and headlines shout the number of people without power. But often people forget that when the power goes out, water and gas utilities are also affected.

In 2012, for example, Hurricane Sandy affected more than 690 drinking water and wastewater utilities across 11 states, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, a few days after Hurricane Katrina, the EPA estimated that some 1,220 drinking water systems and more than 200 wastewater treatment facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had suffered detrimental impacts.

“In Biloxi, for example, officials were unable to re-pressurize the drinking water system because of broken and inaccessible water mains and valves,” noted Claudia Copeland, resources and environmental policy specialist with the Congressional Research Service, in a report titled Hurricane-Damaged Drinking Water and Wastewater Facilities: Impacts, Needs and Response.

“The issue with regard to drinking water in this area is large numbers of waterline breaks resulting from house connections that were damaged when trees fell, fire hydrants that were damaged by debris or debris cleanup efforts, and lines that were crushed or fractured by the weight of floodwaters,” she continued later in the report when talking about New Orleans.

Copeland also noted: “An ongoing problem across the Gulf Coast region is that, as hurricane debris is cleared, fire hydrants and water meters are often torn out of the ground, causing leaks that must be repaired.”


More than meter reads

When scrambling to shore up a storm-damaged water system, meter reading may be the last thing on a utility manager’s mind. However,  water utilities with the right kind of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in place have found that it can help with power restoration and more.

One such organization is the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the largest public water system in North America. There, some 820,000 hook-ups serving nine million residents are linked to the utility via a fixed-network RF metering system.

Although this utility’s service territory was right in the worst of Hurricane Sandy, only 2,000 of the water utility’s 820,000 AMI meter transmission units lost contact with the head-end system, and most of those were attached to buildings that no longer remained standing. The utility had some 350 data collection units in the field to collect meter readings and relay them back to the utility. Of those, only 12 lost contact, largely because they lost power.

Given the reliability and resilience of the AMI system, DEP used metering data to track areas where zero consumption was recording, indicating that customers had evacuated their premises and saving first responders vital time and energy in their rescue efforts. The utility also found large leaks by flagging residences with high water consumption.

Additional capabilities of AMI

Although DEP didn’t have this capability, there’s another way advanced metering could help utilities recover after a devastating storm: Acoustic analysis sensor data can piggyback on the AMI system.

Acoustic leak detection technology listens for the pressure wave that leaks create inside water pipes. Then, the computer associated with the system correlates the location of the problem and can even provide insight into the size of the leak, because differently sized ruptures generate different frequency characteristics.  That enables utility managers to prioritize repair efforts, a crucial advantage when the entire system has been storm-battered.

When blue skies return, that acoustic analysis system can help utilities detect and stop unaccounted-for water, which contributes to better cost control and helps the utility efficiently use revenues. There’s a perk for a utility forced to invest in new infrastructure.

This blog was originally published in 2018 and was updated on August 31, 2020

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