Utility Direction for Smart Cities – Driving the Industry

At the most recent AWWA Management Conference in March 2019, a Smart Cities and Internet of Things Workshop was held. During this time, several Utility speakers provided information on how they were approaching smart cities along with the challenges that they faced. What stood out to me during this time was the number of different thoughts on what a smart city or smart utility constitutes, along with how hesitant the participants seemed to be towards implementation. Many of the general comments indicated that Utilities would prefer to let vendors drive the direction by providing devices that would fit their use cases. One final concern was related to internal IT capability to properly maintain all of these devices once they were deployed.

As I began to think more about this throughout the week, it troubled me that the Utilities and Municipalities seemed hesitant to push the vendors by presenting their use cases and / or demanding more open standards network capabilities to open up potential use case functionality. Utilities and Municipalities are in a unique position to avoid some of the failures of Automated Metering by ensuring their voices are heard while these products and solutions are being developed, and they should take complete advantage of this opportunity. In speaking with vendors, I believe they are in the opposite position of the customers and are awaiting more feedback to push development towards the most likely use cases. I believe we need to begin industry-level discussions now, to ensure the customers are being heard by the vendors and a dialogue is started before products are developed into a closed system and the vendor’s engineering resources are left to create functionality without direction.

A true Smart City or Smart Utility implementation will be difficult, and breaking down internal silos is essential to ensure all stakeholders are participating and a solid master plan can be created for direction. Management should create a steering committee internally made up of all stakeholders and provide the committee with the directives and goals to make the implementation successful across all operational groups. My concern for the ultimate future of Internet of Things and Smart Organizations is a ‘network for everything’, where we see one entity with a purpose-built network for every individual problem they’re trying to solve, without direction and participation from . This brings me to my last point, which is data ingestion. The most important part of a truly Smart Organization will be their ability to act on the data that is being received. As more devices and more networks are layered onto an organization, it will become harder for the silos to utilize data across the business units to make effective decisions; ultimately this will lead to the value of the ‘smart implementation’ never being fully realized.

What are your thoughts on Smart Cities / Utilities? What is your approach plan? Do you have data utilization plan once all of your devices are installed and reporting?

Utility Management in IT Security

At the the Mueller Mi.Net Conference (Mi.Conference), Mueller invited Anil Gosine, a cybersecurity expert, to discuss Internet of Things (IoT) concerns and general Utility IT shortfalls that are inherent to the industry. During his presentation, a few items of note came up regarding Utility Management and their ability to react to cybersecurity threats:

1.) In a 2016 survey, over 80% of Corporate Executives that responded stated they felt they could not understand a cybersecurity report and that their organizations were not prepared for a major attack (both security against and mitigation of effects)
2.) In the same survey, 40% of those respondents stated they were not concerned about their lack of understanding, as they felt they were not liable for the repercussions of hacking nor the responsibility of protecting customer data. Their defense seemed to be based on the fact that this should be IT responsibility

When thinking about this survey example, it made me wonder how concerned the Utility Managers are with cybersecurity, and how they feel their role is played regarding responsibility in the event of an attack. As we work with Utilities to help deploy Automated Metering Systems, I often see the responsibility for this Utility project be pushed off to IT due to being related to technology, however these systems are more about change across the entire Utility, which the IT group cannot effectively manage without support. With this comparison in mind, I’m curious how many Utility Managers would have a similar outlook to customer data protection and responsibility, even if they did not directly realize it until now.

Another troubling situation is the continued prevalence of IoT discussions related to Smart City and Smart Utility goals. As Utilities continue to expand these networks and add new devices, we are seeing more opportunities for edge computing (situations where the endpoint runs applications and performs calculations) and SCADA-like use cases. SCADA systems have always been ‘islanded’ for security reasons. Many of the devices for IoT have use and operational requirements that necessitate connection; the potential for direct device control by an attacker multiplies the data issues in the event of an attack and can pose larger consequences for the community. None of these concerns are new for the electric industry, but water and gas are continuing to evolve with their own complex application needs, and as these needs develop, the potential for malicious actors to turn their eyes toward these Utilities becomes much greater.

In closing, IT and cybersecurity questions for Utility Leadership:
1. Is our IT Team supported with clear enough directives to act decisively?
2. What can Utility Leadership do to improve our organization to be resilient in the face of attacks?
3. How do we change as an organization to handle the power and transformations coming from IoT and Smart Cities / Smart Utilities?

Does AMI Standardization Limit Innovation?

Over the past year, there has been an outcry within the metering industry for standardized AMI. This effort is being pushed in the electric and water industries, with the hopes that buying one manufacturer’s system would not tie an organization down to that manufacturer’s meter, transmitter, or collector. While there is the possibility of opening the market, if a standard exists that everyone follows, where is the need for innovation and outside of the box thinking? Similarly, do the standards inhibit this innovation at a technical level as well? Certainly it can be argued that a standard can cause the technical approach to be stifled based on the restrictions of the approach itself.

During the IFAT conference in Munich, Germany I was exposed to the M-bus (Meter Bus) standard created for the purpose of standardizing a meter communications protocol. This protocol supports both wired and wireless specifications (more on wireless later) that define how a meter should communicate. M-bus was originally created to provide an easy means for retrieving readings for heating and cooling meters in an apartment complex. These radiator service meters are prevalent outside of the US market where central HVAC is not common. To simplify the reading of these meters, the wired M-bus standard calls for a gateway device that is wired in a circuit to each meter in the building; from there the gateway provides TCP/IP communication to any computer. The total baud rate for this circuit is 9.6 Kbps (that’s kilobits per second).

Wireless M-bus has since become an option. This allows for data transmission over the M-bus protocol through any wireless network. Obviously the options are greatly expanded and allow M-bus to utilize 802.11 and LORA, but you’re limited to a 115.2 Kbps baud with this version of the protocol. You must also use a wireless M-bus gateway that has no repeating capability as the standard calls for meter to collector to head end only. This means that no collector to collector and no meter to meter communication can be utilized to retrieve messages using M-bus protocol, according to the standard definitions.

Now let’s compare the M-bus protocol to a cellular AMI solution using CDMA 1x (or EV-DO). These solutions could potentially be at minimum 153.2 Kbps baud, but peak at over 3Mbps and allow for two way communications. To be fair, that is a cellular network managed by a for-profit company, so let’s compare to a solution utilizing the ISM band. The ISM band is the open license band between 902 and 928 MHz. Many US AMI vendors utilize this band for their networks. This band offers about 128Kbps on the low end and around 6Mbps on the upper end, but would be restricted by the vendor’s specific protocol, typically around 200 kbps baud. The third solution is a licensed network solution, which can offer around 16KBps (that’s bytes per second) baud on average; comparing that to the cellular solution, that comes out to about .128 of the cellular total data but still 13 kbps better than maximum bandwidth on the M-bus protocol. See image below.

So why does any of this matter? If M-bus can utilize LORA for wireless transmission, the network isn’t a major factor; rather the protocol is limiting the max transmission speed. Several manufacturers have moved back to licensed networks after utilizing ISM for many years; a couple have moved to LORA. If the manufacturer has the option to build a non-standard protocol within the confines of their own network, they are able to expand and innovate on that without issue. If a manufacturer is limited to one protocol with limitations to allow for homogenization, what opportunity is there for innovation?

In closing, I believe with the exception of adoption of TCP/IP (currently used in computer networks) as the protocol, standardization only limits what can be done on a metering network and slows the ability for a vendor to innovate if they have to report back to a consortium for a standard. While others want standardization, I believe it is better for all to allow non-standard competition.

Do you think the U.S. should standardize it’s AMI market?

Top 3 Daily Metering System Checks

In my previous post I outlined some ways that being proactive with your advanced metering system can really help you out. So what exactly are you supposed to look at every day? Here are my top 3 suggestions:

Network Performance
One of the largest shifts in the last few years is Advanced Metering systems are vastly complex infrastructure systems, and no longer just meters and physical collection devices. With the goal of getting as many reads into the system as possible, verifying that the network infrastructure is functioning as expected is a mandatory step. If one of your collection devices goes down, you need to know immediately as part of your system may be unreachable and reads could be lost. Likewise, if the software of the head end system isn’t working like it should, it could impact reads being processed and making it into other systems like a Meter Data or Outage Management system.

Check daily asking is it functioning properly?
–  Collectors and/or Repeaters
–  Head End System
–  MDM
–  OMS
–  Customer Portals
–  Other systems

Missed Reads
As I said in my proactive post, with an Advanced Metering system you can check for reads that are missing every day and I would recommend you do so. Nearly every system has a period of backfill (backfill meaning the meter will resend data that wasn’t received by the system when it was transmitted due to coverage issues, etc.). Due to that backfill, I recommend looking into meters that have been missing reads for 3 days or more. This will drastically reduce you chasing your tail on meters that are just 1-2 days latent that will backfill eventually anyway. I prefer to check for this in my MDM versus my Head End System, because I can populate the list of “expected’ meters from my billing system (where I need the reads to end up anyway).

Check daily:
–  Meters missing reads for 3+ days

What’s Important to You
This last section isn’t a cop-out, I promise!! Network Performance and Missing Reads are two things that to me are non-negotiable. Outside of that, there are tons of things that can be verified on a regular basis as data comes in, but it really depends on the focus of your utility. Are you working to conserve water? Check on your leak and high usage alarms daily. Do you have a high rate of meter vandalism in your community? Check for tamper and non-usage alerts. There is a gamut of data available in these Advanced Metering systems, but too much data can become just that – plain old data. You can run all the reports in the system, but if you don’t have the time to investigate the issues it is pretty worthless. Choose the things that will have the most impact and start running with those. Then you can add as you go along.


These are my suggestions on what to check in your system daily to keep it running optimally. What do you check on a regular basis? How has it impacted your utility or system performance?

Why to Start Being Proactive With Your Advanced Metering Infrastructure?

One of the advantages of an Advanced Metering system is that you receive daily information from your meters versus the old once a month or quarter.  Our first thought is that this is great because the data will be available for us to look up whenever we need it.  However, I also like to remind people that this also means the data can be viewed daily to resolve issues in advance.  Of course we all hate adding extra work to our already busy lives.  Here are some reasons why being proactive with your Advanced Metering system will only help you out in the long run.

It can make billing time less stressful

Broken equipment, customer tampering or other issues are not discovered until we want to gather information, which most frequently occurs when we want to gather billing reads. You spend time fixing issues to recover lost data during the most time-sensitive period of the month or quarter. Every utility we work with tells the same story about billing time – it’s a mad scramble to the finish line.

When regular data is available, we can find and resolve meter issues every day. Starting your morning tasking out the resolution of those issues along with a few simple checks means the work is more evenly spread and manageable throughout your billing period. When it comes time to get your reads for billing, all the issues have been resolved and it is one less stress during that harried time.

It can increase customer satisfaction

Daily meter data also provides information regarding volume alarms like high, no, or continuous usage. Often these alarms are not pushed out to customer service or operations via email or text (or if they are it can quickly become overwhelming).  Instead, you have to go into the system to retrieve that information. In places where water prices are high, many customers are grateful when they can be informed of a water leak in their home causing unnecessary costs.

One of the more serious examples that I have seen occurred here in the upper Midwest. Operations was monitoring for alarms in the winter and found a house that had abnormally large amounts of water usage. They called the homeowner, who was actually a “snowbird” living down in Florida.  That homeowner was able to contact a relative nearby who could check on their house and found that a pipe had burst from the cold.  They were able to stop the flow and had the pipe repaired and the water cleaned up before the entire house was lost due to the damage.  This is just one of many examples of how your metering system can really benefit your customers, but only if you are monitoring the data proactively.

It can help with conservation

Though conservation is a buzzword right now, we can all agree that it is still very important.  Using extremely current data allows you to keep close track of your high users, quickly identify areas where resources might be lost, and find where equipment has been tampered with. If you don’t have daily data you would only be able to react after the monthly reads came in, which could be thousands of dollars wasted.

In addition to monitoring these large, obvious losses, you can also open the data up with a customer portal to put some of the onus on your customers to conserve. Most folks don’t know their usage patterns and how that equates to a larger or smaller bill.  When you’re able to show them hard evidence for what they’re using and how it is costing them money it translates into their actions to conserve.


These are just a few ways that being proactive versus reactive with your Advanced Metering system can really help you out.  What other benefits have you found from being more proactive with your meter data?