Do San Francisco’s smart meters help curb water use?

Fri, 2015-04-24 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

California’s prolonged drought is drawing attention to San Francisco’s love for smart water meters. Even more so after the state’s governor recently mandated of a 25% cut in water use by the end of this year.

Worried water officials from around the region are looking to San Francisco with the hope of better understanding if investing in the meters makes sense. They want to kow if the meters really pay off in terms of preserving the water supply and helping meet water use mandates.

Some early evidence from San Francisco would suggest the meters do. Greentech Media reports that a San Francisco resident on average uses about 45 gallons per capita per day, compared to 69 in Los Angeles and 81 in Sacramento. While San Francisco’s cooler climate and eco-conscious citizenry may account for some of that difference, the smart water meters appear to play a role, too. Enough so that over the past few years 40 different cities have taken time to check out San Francisco's meter upgrades, says Tyrone Jue, communications director for the San Francisco Public Utility Commission.

Daily water use data posted online
It’s important to understand that San Francisco has embraced upscale water meters like few other places in the U.S. More than 96% of the city’s 178,000 water accounts are monitored by the digital devices, according to the utility commission.

What's particularly remarkable about the city’s meters -- most of them from SCC Associate Partner Elster -- is that they transmit water consumption data hourly to the water utility via a wireless network. This almost real-time water usage information lets the utility and customers monitor use and detect leaks faster than other automated systems, and certainly faster than manually read meters.

Greentech points to two ways San Francisco is currently using its metering muscle to curb water usage.

  • Public web portal. The city’s metering system lets water customers see their daily water use via a web portal. While only about 6% of San Francisco’s water accounts have logged into the portal to date, the water utility contends the portal helped the city gain an extra 8% in water savings last summer.
  • Abnormal usage alerts. Because San Francisco’s smart meters read water usage so frequently, the system is able to quickly catch abnormal usage levels. High water use patterns lasting three days prompt the water utility to make a phone call and send out a postcard to inform the water customer about the potential leak. The utility intends to automate its early warning system with text alerts and emails in the near future.

One obstacle San Francisco’s water utility has encountered is the fact that, while city tenants consume water, building landlords often pay the water bill. Tenants therefore have less of an incentive to log on to the web portal and check out their usage numbers.  

Related articles …
San Francisco turns to smart water meters during drought
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