Southern Utah city gets smart about water conservation with high IQ meters

An app will alert homeowners, businesses to leaks. Measure could decrease water usage by 6% to 12%.

Via Washingtoncity.org How the Advanced Media Infrastructure water metering system works. Washington City is installing the meters citywide with the hope it will reduce water waste by up to 12%.

St. George As summer looms nearer, the temperatures in the St. George area are beginning their inexorable climb. And the water usage and leaks typically climb right along with the mercury.

That said, leaks are not just a problem in the St. George area. They plague 48,000-plus municipal water systems across the U.S. Together, according to a 2021 American Society of Civil Engineers report, those systems lose 6 billion of the 39 billion gallons of water they deliver each day — about 15% of the daily total and enough to fill nearly 9,100 Olympic-size swimming pools — due to leaks from aging pipes and other infrastructure.

By Washington City officials’ calculations, their city’s losses due to water leaks are much more modest. They reported roughly 363,000 gallons lost on the day they checked in April 2023. If that loss was the same each day, which it wouldn’t be because water use varies widely between the winter and hot summer months, it would total 132.4 million gallons per year.

While 363,000 gallons seems somewhat insignificant compared to the nearly 3 billion gallons Washington City used from all sources in 2022, such losses are unacceptably high in drought-prone southwestern Utah where growth is outpacing the availability of water. The need for water is so dire that the Washington County Water Conservancy District unveiled a 20-year master plan last July to secure another 47,000 acre-feet of water by 2042 to make up for the shortfall.

Photo courtesy of Washington City Washington City is installing Advanced Media Infrastructure water metering systems like this citywide with the hope it will reduce water waste by up to 12%.

Water conservation is the “low-hanging fruit” that’s ripe for plucking in the conservancy district’s plan. It’s the most economical way to make major gains in water availability from modest investments.

It’s still early, but Washington City is fast emerging as a leader in that effort.

Leading the way

On April 1, 2023, the city became the first municipality in southern Utah to install an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system — essentially smart water meters — for all of its nearly 15,000 residential homes. While it is too early to tell how much water will be saved as a result, Washington City could see a decrease in daily water usage between 6% and 12% if it follows national trends.

For his part, Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli is pleased with the opportunity the city has to step out from under the shadow of neighboring St. George and shine.

“Frankly, Washington City is developing a reputation throughout the county and the state of being a leader in water policy” with advanced metering, he said.

Indeed, gone are the not-so-good-old days a meter reader would have to trudge over to each home to read the water meter. The AMI represents the latest in metering technology, allowing the data to be transmitted wirelessly from a home to a municipality or water utility.

How AMI works

Here is how AMI works. Data collected by each meter is transmitted to a radio or a cell tower — Washington City has seven towers and three repeater stations to avoid dead spaces due to geographical and other obstacles. The data can then be accessed by residents online or on their smartphones if they subscribed to the My Water Advisor app.

While Washington City is expending a modest $1 million to upgrade to the new AMI system, the benefits to residents could be substantial. For example, because the data is updated each day, the system can provide residents with a nearly real-time glimpse of how much water they are consuming and enable them to make adjustments. It further alerts residents quickly about possible water leaks.

Via Washingtoncity.org How the Advanced Media Infrastructure water metering system works. Washington City is installing the meters citywide with the hope it will reduce water waste by up to 12%.

Lester Dalton, Washington City’s assistant public works director, said the city also is alerted if the water losses are significant enough: about 10 gallons an hour over a 48-hour period. The city can then notify residents via email, text or even a phone call that there is a potential problem.

If residents have set up their app to allow it, they can also receive either a leak alert via text or email if water is detected flowing at their homes continuously for 24 hours. Such notices can minimize the damage and save homeowners thousands of dollars in repairs.

Still, the city is largely focused on larger leaks.

“We don’t want to be chasing down every dripping faucet in the city,” Dalton said. “So we have set a threshold that the leak has to be large enough to do some damage.”

Dalton knows firsthand the utility of smart water meters. The one he installed on his home recently alerted him to a large leak. At first, he ignored it. But he did an about-face after receiving another text alert and checking the meter.

“Unfortunately, I had a leak under my home and was losing about 300 gallons per day,” he recalled. “I had to replace a water line under my home.”

Helping water users be better stewards

Washington City is planning to install AMI at all its commercial businesses, schools and institutional and industrial buildings. St. George and Hurricane are in the process of following suit. Last August, St. George received a $3 million U.S. Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant to install an AMI system.

St. George Water Services Director Scott Taylor says city crews have installed 7,500 new meters thus far and expect to finish purchasing and installing the remaining 26,500 meters and related equipment in 18 months. The estimated cost of the project is between $8.5 million and $9 million. Santa Clara, La Verkin and Tocquerville recently finished installing AMI systems. Ivins plans to install an AMI system but is still seeking grant funding to pay for it.

Staheli said implementing the tech-savvy system is about giving power back to water users and enabling them to be the best stewards they can.

“I have found that water conservation in the desert really resonates with people,” the mayor added. “It’s not political; it’s responsible. … For the most part, people welcome the ability to control their usage.”

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