Hot Springs Measuring Meters in Innovative Ways (Technology Advancements | Winner, 20,000+)

When the city of Hot Springs decided to retire its antiquated water meters, the goal was to get rid of equipment that was no longer efficient. City workers researched the alternatives and decided an automated metering infrastructure (AMI) was what was going to keep Spa City from getting all wet.

While this primary objective was met in the initial process, Hot Springs discovered more benefits in the project than just keeping real-time tabs on customer water usage.

That twist helped earn a win in the 2013 Arkansas Business City of Distinction’s Techological Advancements category for larger cities.

AMI systems allow for the automatic digital collection of data from metering devices. The data can then be entered into a database for analysis and billing purposes. While AMI systems are geared to save cities money, the initial costs can be expensive.

In 2009, the city realized it wouldn’t be able to fund such a project. The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission stepped in with an allocation of funds received from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. The ANRC offered $5 million with zero percent interest with an additional $5 million offered with low interest. The commission’s criteria for “green infrastructure” funding, was met by Hot Springs, ready with a water program already researched and developed.

No city in Arkansas of comparative size had yet installed an AMI. Even flushed with funds, Hot Springs had to go on a dry run of its own. Support from the water customers was not overwhelming at first.

“Skeptical would best describe our citizens’ initial reaction to the meters being truly accurate,” said Lance Spicer, city clerk and assistant city manager of Hot Springs.

It wasn’t long however before customers found themselves saving money, such as when leaks were detected in days, not after entire billing cycles. The city saved money by being able to solve an issue with a computer instead of sending a truck and an employee to each problem location. A reduction in staff has provided an annual savings of approximately $120,000.

The goals of the project were met with the financial benefits clear. However, a second advantage to having the system was unexpected and saved the city even more money.

In August 2008, the city of Hot Springs was placed under a Consent Administrative Order by the Environmental Protection Agency due to violations related to wastewater overflows in its collection system, usually a failure of pump stations. With over 3,200 wastewater pump stations, the city needed an alert system that would warn engineers of potential overflows.

Eyes turned toward the AMI system. It could already communicate remotely with customer water meters. Would the same approach work for wastewater stations? This conversation led to the wastewater lift station monitoring project.

Where other systems would have required exclusive infrastructure and costs of around $20,000 per station, the city was able to use its existing AMI communications equipment to monitor the lift stations at the much lower price of $450 per unit.

“Our reaction was one of elation, for lack of a better term,” said Spicer. “We suddenly had found a very innovative and extremely cost effective method to do something most thought impossible.” To Spicer’s knowledge, even the EPA was seeing this for the first time.

Hot Springs’ two-part project changed the perception of a city utility going around neighborhoods and lifting meter lids to one of being innovative, forward thinking and saving money, keeping tax dollars from going down the drain.