Leaning on CPS Energy’s experience, the San Antonio Water System is testing a new smart meter pilot program that would eventually allow SAWS customers to track their water use in near-real time.

SAWS is working with CPS Energy and their shared contractor Itron to test smart water meters on the same wireless network as CPS Energy’s smart meters. CPS Energy completed replacing 740,000 analog meters citywide in 2018, four years after starting the overhaul.

SAWS is calling its smart meter effort ConnectH2O. For the pilot, 2,500 smart water meters have been installed around San Antonio, said Jose De La Cruz, SAWS director of program delivery.

Much like CPS Energy’s smart meters, SAWS new meters will allow customers to see current information about their water use and associated costs through an online portal. Now, customers see their water use once a month, when bills arrive.

Smart water meters will “fundamentally change how we interact with our customers,” said Mary Bailey, SAWS vice president of customer experience and strategic initiatives. As part of the pilot, she said, “we are … making sure that we’re identifying everything that needs to be addressed, any processes that need to be changed.”

CPS Energy is offering SAWS valuable lessons learned. The utility launched its own smart meter program in 2014 under its Smart Grid initiative, which has been “overall really successful,” said Jonathan Tijerina, CPS Energy’s senior director of business and economic development. The utility spent $290 million to replace its old meters with smart meters, said Dana Sotoodeh, a communications specialist for CPS Energy.

In 2017, CPS Energy rolled trucks out 58,000 fewer times — or 34 percent less — than the previous year due to changes made under the Smart Grid initiative, including the new meter rollout, Sotoodeh said. CPS Energy worked with its then-partner Silver Spring Network, which in 2018 was bought by Itron, which has been CPS Energy’s partner since. SAWS trustees approved Itron as its smart meter contractor last October.

CPS Energy rolled out smart meters across the City completing the work in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Today, most SAWS water meters are read monthly by a meter reader. The reader drives out to a neighborhood, walks to each meter and writes down the readings manually. Under the new system, the meters will communicate wirelessly between SAWS and its customers, Bailey said.

This would allow customers to see their water use in near-real time, just as CPS Energy customers can in the My Energy Portal feature on its website, Bailey said. This can help customers save water, by monitoring and then adjusting their use during a billing period, and see any potential problems — like a sudden increase in water use, which could indicate a leak — quickly, she said.

And just as CPS Energy retrained about 50 meter readers for other positions within the company, SAWS will do the same, confirmed Bailey, retraining any meter reader who would like a different position within SAWS.

Because meters transmit data wirelessly, readings are more accurate and secure because there is far less potential for human error, Tijerina said.

Although CPS Energy and SAWS data will be transmitted through the same communications network, neither entity will have access to each other’s information, Sotoodeh said. Nor is a single utility portal or bill being considered; the partnership is more about using the same contractor and network while utilizing CPS Energy’s knowledge about meter replacement, she said.

Having both meters on the same network is a testament to the collaborative possibilities between the two city-owned utilities, Tijerina said. Since most cities’ utilities are privately owned, they likely would not share a network.

“Because of the connectivity here — both literally and figuratively in San Antonio — we have a great relationship,” Tijerina said. 

Public education is also critical. CPS Energy held a series of public meetings throughout the community and put information out on its website to explain the facts and benefits of its smart grid initiative. CPS Energy also offered an opt-out option, with less than 1% of customers choosing to keep their analog meters, Sotoodeh said.

The pilot program will run through the fall, and then SAWS officials will return to the board, which received an update on the pilot last month, seeking approval for a full rollout, which could take up to six years, De La Cruz said.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.