Customer Meter Inaccuracy

Customer meters that inaccurately measure the volumes passing through them can be a major source of apparent loss in drinking water systems. While most North American drinking water utilities meter their customer consumption, a notable number do not. For example, only 56% of all residences in Canada were metered as of 1999, therefore many customers are unmetered and typically pay a flat-rate fee for water service.1 In unmetered water utilities, meter accuracy cannot be evaluated as an apparent loss; although these utilities are behooved to use other methods to quantify the amount of customer consumption and separate it from components of authorized consumption and water losses.

Figure 11.1 gives the American Water Works Association's (AWWA) policy statement on metering and accountability. This publication supports AWWA's recommendation to meter water supplied to distribution systems as well as all customer consumption, therefore this discussion exists in the context of water utilities having fully metered customer populations. Water utilities that do not meter their customers can obtain an approximation of customer consumption by metering and data-logging representative samples of customer accounts and statistically evaluating the results to infer general customer consumption trends.

Customer meters provide valuable information on consumption trends for long-term planning, and data needed to evaluate loss control and conservation programs. Metering also elevates the value of water in the mind of the consumer by linking a price with a volume. With highly capable metering, automatic meter-reading systems, and data-logging technologies now widely available, customer consumption information has become a critical element to better manage water utility operations and the water resources of individual watersheds or regions.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) recommends that every water utility meter all water taken into its system and all water distributed from its system at its customer's point of service. AWWA also recommends that utilities conduct regular water audits to ensure accountability. Customers reselling utility water - such as apartment complexes, wholesalers, agencies, associations, or businesses - should be guided by principles that encourage accurate metering, consumer protection, and financial equity.

Metering and water auditing provide an effective means of managing water system operations and essential data for system performance studies, facility planning, and the evaluation of conservation measures. Water audits evaluate the effectiveness of metering and meter reading systems, as well as billing, accounting, and loss control programs. Metering consumption of all water services provides a basis for assessing users equitably and encourages the efficient use of water.

An effective metering program relies upon periodic performance testing, repair, and maintenance of all meters. Accurate metering and water auditing ensure an equitable recovery of revenue based on level of service and wise use of available water resources.

Figure 11.1 Policy statement: metering and accountability. (Source: American Water Works Association)

A thorough discussion of customer meters is beyond the scope of this publication. AWWA provides excellent guidance in several manuals that cover all aspects of sound meter management. The M6 publication, Water Meters—Selection, Installation, Testing, and Maintenance, provides comprehensive information on the basics of customer meter management.2 The M22 publication, Sizing Water Service Lines and Meters, provides outstanding guidance on customer demand profiling and sizing criteria, which are critical for meter accuracy.3

A word of caution about data handling: Meter accuracy is only the first step in obtaining customer consumption data. While the meter must provide an accurate measure, the subsequent processes—including meter readings (gathered manually or automatically), data transfer to billing systems, and archival operations—must also be handled accurately, or the actual customer consumption will be distorted, with the data from some customer accounts lost entirely. In many water utilities, it is not uncommon to find accurate meter data transposed erroneously, adjusted improperly, or incorrectly archived. If any part of the data path lacks integrity, it is easy to misinterpret apparent losses solely as meter inaccuracy, with potentially costly consequences if loss control decisions (such as replacing large numbers of accurate meters) are based upon this faulty assumption.

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