San Antonio’s water meters are about to get smarter.

Following the completion of a successful pilot program in November, SAWS’ board of trustees unanimously approved the roll out of smart meters across the water utility’s full-service area Tuesday.

City-wide rollout will kick off in 2022, and cost roughly $215 million, according to staff. Installing approximately 600,000 electronic meters and communication devices across SAWS service area will take about four years, and will be the largest deployment of smart or ultrasonic “static” water meters in the nation to date, said Mary Bailey, vice president of customer experience.

Because they don’t have any moving parts, the new meters are less susceptible to wear and tear, which also makes them consistently accurate for longer, she said.

The new meters could save customers and SAWS both money and water.

They’ll help customers potentially save water by monitoring and then adjusting their use during a billing period, and by alerting them quickly to any potential problems — like a sudden increase in continuous water use, which could indicate a leak. Saving water could mean saving money.

For SAWS, sending out fewer trucks and employees to manually read meters should lower labor costs, while the meters themselves can help the utility catch leaks.

“This investment in technology is a tremendous step for SAWS and will help us become even more cost-efficient,” Board Chairwoman Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison said. “Not only will customers have more tools to control their bills, but we’ll be able to reduce lost water, helping us meet ambitious water conservation goals that ensure plentiful water supplies for our growing city.”

The pilot program installed 1,560 static water meters and retrofitted 900 meters with electronic registers around three areas of San Antonio: Stone Oak, Westover Hills, and the downtown business district.

“The pilot accomplished everything we’d set out to do,” Bailey told the San Antonio Report. “I think we were even able to do things that hadn’t been originally planned.”

Static meters consistently outperformed the retrofitted meters, Bailey said. Because of this, SAWS will focus on installing the new static meters rather than doing any retrofitting, Bailey said.

“We saw a lot of problems with the retrofitting and felt like there’s really not any value to that,” Bailey said.

Much like CPS Energy’s smart meters — which the electric utility rolled out between 2014 and 2017 — SAWS’ new meters will allow customers to see hourly information about their water use and associated costs through an online portal in near-real time. Currently, customers can only see their water use once a month, when bills arrive.

Both San Antonio utilities partnered with Itron to be their smart meter contractor, a move SAWS said will provide economic and operating efficiencies. Itron provides the utilities with the entire infrastructure — an integrated system of smart meters, communications networks, and data management systems that enables two-way communication between utilities and customers. SAWS will run its new metering system on the same wireless network as CPS Energy.

Static meters showed to be consistently more accurate in SAWS-performed lab tests, Bailey said, and can detect lower flows than SAWS current meters. Extended testing by SAWS showed existing meters failed to pass industry minimum flow test standards, while static meters consistently passed them, she added.

While this could mean the meters pick up previously undetected water use, it shouldn’t affect bills unless the improved reading moves the customer into a higher-use block, which is unlikely, said Anne Hayden, communications manager of SAWS. SAWS instead hopes it will help customers detect low-flow leaks they can fix to help save water, Hayden said.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.