The Evolution of Water Metering Technology
Water meters provide Water Service Provides (WSPs) the ability to monitor water use and effectively implement a tariff structure based on customers water consumption. If implemented effectively, they can support WSPs to increase revenue and reduce non-revenue water. The quality of the technology within water meters is critical to ensure accurate readings and reduce operational issues or tampering. Water meter technology being used in the developing world has been evolving quickly in recent years, with new features added to improve accuracy, automate reading, and integrate billing.
Conventional water meters display their readings on the meters themselves and have no additional functionality. Meter-reading data from conventional water meters is obtained by physically visiting each meter and taking a manual reading. Once the readings were entered on the billing system, a hardcopy of the bill was produced and sent to the customer. The customer would then typically go to the WSP office to pay the bill and pay in cash for the service, as set out below. This process is time intensive and the process can take over 3 months from metering reading to payment, which had a negative impact on WSP cashflow and increased the chances of non-payment of bills. Technology introduced to enable the meter readers to collect the reading digitally and even sent the meter reading directly to the WSP billing system by text message, introduced some efficiencies into this process.
Meter read by meter reader, paper billing, and cash payment
Customers taking responsibility for reading and submitting their meter reading introduced some further efficiencies into the system, as set out below. Customers were able to submit readings directly to the WSP office or via their mobile phone through text message, enabling the WSP to collect meter readings faster than a team of meter readers. Although meter readers were still required to verify some readings and collect reading for those customers that did not submit. A significant efficiency in the billing and payment process occurred when customers were able to receive bills via their mobile phone and more recently payment were able to be sent and received through mobile payment systems, which is the case of Kenya is primarily through M-PESA.
Meter read by customer, paper/mobile billing, and cash/mobile payment
Advanced water metering uses water meters which have additional components and functionality compared to conventional water meters. The introduction of “smart meters” has enabled the whole process to be automated. Smart water meters allow the meter to perform functions such as processing and storing data and sending and receiving signals from a remote station. Smart meters are able to directly communicate with WSP billing software, as set out below. This has resulted in WSPs having real time meter readings for customers, significantly reducing the time it takes to generate bills.
These systems often require additional infrastructure for smart meters to communicate with WSP software platforms through either radio or mobile networks. Radio networks are generally cheaper but can require collection of reading by a mobile radio receiving devises, which enable the WSP to collect reading in batches. Mobile network enabled smart meter technology allows the meter to communicate directly with the WSP software system but can incur costs related to use of mobile networks and data.
Smart meter, mobile billing, and mobile payment
Some of the latest water meters include water management devices, which include valves that can automatically shut off or limit the water supply. These meters are used in prepaid water meters to enable customers to access water. Some of these systems, often used at kiosks or communal taps (as set out below), rely on the customer to use a token or water “credit card” to facilitate the transaction.
Pre-payment with token or credit, smart Meter attached to communal tap or water vendor/kiosk
The latest PAYGo smart water meters are used for household connection, as set out below, and enable customers to pay for water in more flexible manner based on available money and real time water use. The introduction of pre-paid and PAYGo systems into water meters has enabled WSPs to request customers to pay for their water services upfront prior to receiving any water.
PAYGo smart meter, and mobile receipts/updates
Receiving payment upfront can significantly help WSPs’ cashflow and reduce non-payment for services. However pre-paid systems can result in tension between WSPs and their customers if the water service is not provided following upfront payment. It should be noted that some pre-paid systems require a fixed upfront payment on a regular basis. These systems often rely on tokens and payment cards. However, PAYGo systems provide customers a more flexibility approach allowing them to make payments of any amount at any time through mobile money platforms. In such prepaid systems customer are sent receipts through their mobile phone, as well as reminders when their credit is running low.
There is no doubt the increasing billing effectiveness and reducing non-revenue water can have a significant impact on the service levels WSPs provide to their existing customers, as well as their ability to generate and raise finance to reach new customers. Improving the efficiency of metering systems is a key component in this effort, but not the only one. WSPs need to embrace a broader culture underlying an effective customer service focused approach, as well as focus on recovering the cost of providing services and generating income to expand and upgrade their networks.