Two years ago, Sobha Daffodils — an apartment in HSR Layout — decided to do something about their water footprint.
Over 420 houses in the apartment adopted smart water flow meters that monitor water usage in real-time. Since then, Radhakrishna Kurup’s average water intake has dropped by about 20%. Kurup is the President of Sobha Daffodils Apartment Owners’ Association.
The use of water globally has increased by roughly six times over the past 100 years, and is expected to rise further. The available freshwater resources have declined by more than 20% per person over the past two decades, according to a 2020 report from Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2025, 1.8 billion people might reside in countries or regions with “absolute” water scarcity, experts have predicted.
Smart water meters address another issue, that of a common bill footed to every household in an apartment. The practice is unfair because some residents tend to conserve water while others are not particularly mindful. With individual meters, each household gets charged separately based on their consumption.
“Our objective is to save water and costs,” Kurup says. “There was no way to measure it [individual household consumption] unless we had meters, so we decided to install them.”
What makes smart water meters “smart”?
Conventional water metres are mechanical. They neither provide users with real-time water consumption data, nor identify leakages in pipes. Promptly detecting and fixing leakage is crucial because a leaking faucet generates 4,000 drops of water, roughly equal to one litre. In a larger context, thousands of gallons of water could go to waste.
Smart water meters, on the other hand, are powered by the Internet of Things (IoT). “They enable three-way communication between the device, the water provider (apartment RWA in this case) and the user,” Vivek Shukla, founder of SmarterHomes Technologies, says. This Bengaluru-based company had developed WaterOn smart meters.
Smart water meters measure water intake, record water flow, analyse and share consumption patterns with the user through an app. These meters can also receive instructions from the water provider and the customer.
Choice of technologies
Smart meters available in the market can be electromechanical, electromagnetic or ultrasonic, explains Ganesh Shankar, founder and CEO at the smart water meter company FluxGen Technologies. Ultrasonic meters are becoming popular as they don’t consume much power and aren’t invasive, unlike electromechanical ones.
Electromechanical meters, which use impellers or pistons to detect water flow, are supported by electronic circuit components to enable real-time information. One drawback is that these devices run the risk of getting clogged when hard water passes through them. Electromagnetic and ultrasonic devices, on the other hand, are less of a hassle. They collect instantaneous meter readings by using electromagnetic waves and ultrasonic waves respectively.
In any smart water meter, a wireless sensor network in the device collects and sends the data to a gateway, before it gets uploaded to the cloud. The analysis happens here. Ganesh adds that Machine Learning algorithms are trained to identify leakage, wastage, excessive usage, and even forecast water consumption. The analysed data then reaches the user interface, which can be on mobile.
The technology allows customers to set a water usage limit. When they exceed it, the app sends them an alert. The app also warns people of leakages. Suppose the smart meter shows that water flow is one kilolitre in one hour, and ten kilolitres in the next. The difference indicates that water is leaking somewhere, probably due to a break in the pipe, explains Ganesh. The user can then fix the problem promptly. These features make the tech “smart”.
Following are some smart water meter companies and the technologies they use.
|WEGOT||Ultrasonic smart water meter|
|Peltek India||Ultrasonic smart water meter|
|Kamstrup||Ultrasonic smart water meter|
|Flowtech Measuring Instruments Pvt Ltd||Battery Operated Digital Flow Meter|
|Accumax||Smart Electromagnetic Flow Meter|
Installing smart water meters in newer apartments is considered largely hassle-free. But doing so for older apartments can be a painful task. In older apartments, individual flats tend to have multiple water inlets, and quite a bit of plumbing work is needed to install a meter for each inlet. “Plus, it is expensive,” Dr Veena Srinivasan, a Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), notes.
Take Sobha Daffodils, for example. The apartment is over 11 years old. Each household has 3-4 water inlets, and a smart meter had to be installed for each inlet. That meant each household shelled out a one-time amount of Rs 10,000-11,000. “But it is worth installing,” Kurup says.
Another option is to redo the plumbing in old buildings. Ganesh says this could be tricky and requires a lot of manual labour. However, apartments like Mahaveer Seasons in HSR Layout have been able to redo their plumbing and install meters at relatively low costs.
Another challenge is that IoT devices are vulnerable to hacking. But Vivek of SmarterHomes Technologies asserts that people should not worry about it as their product WaterOn meters are not available to any publicly-accessible data connection. “Moreover, the hacker is not likely to gain any information as nothing is stored in the device,” he clarifies, adding that the device transfers the recent consumption data to the servers at the earliest opportunity. “On the server-side, we deploy industry-best solutions to encrypt data and ensure security.”
There are other issues too. Kurup of Sobha Daffodils recalls a few residents complaining about the accuracy of the reading in the initial days. He suggests it is essential to develop error-free metering for users.
Ganesh believes that smart water meters will continue evolving to more advanced versions in the days to come. “Based on ongoing research, future versions of smart water meters could be more accurate, economical and consume less power,” he says.
Will smart water meters get adopted widely?
A few issues, including costs, are hindering the broader adoption of smart water meters. SmarterHomes has two models in the market, each priced at Rs 3,999 and Rs 4,999. “Installation costs are extra, and roughly come to Rs 500 to 1000 per meter, based on the location of installation,” Vivek added. Peltek India’s smart ultrasonic meter is listed at the price of Rs 2,000 on the website of the e-commerce company IndiaMART.
The upfront cost is coming down as more apartments are adopting meters due to water scarcity. “So, I would say it is going to further come down, for sure,” Ganesh says. “The cost of water is not what it used to be. That’s why people are investing in smart water meters.”
Vivek has also observed a similar pattern. “Over the last eight years, there has been a significant increase in the adoption of water meters across Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. We also see demand from the NCR and north-east region,” he said. SmarterHomes has so far installed roughly 40,000 meters in approximately 25,000 homes. Last year, he added, the number went down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has introduced regulations that require individual flats in apartments to install internal water meters, to ensure that the resource is used judiciously. However, given the pandemic, the Board is not yet penalising defaulters.
Dr Veena of ATREE believes that rather than meter installation, water conservation would be possible if water is priced fairly for those who can afford it. (Currently, BWSSB’s water tariff is much lower than the actual cost they incur in transporting and distributing Cauvery water.) “Everything else will follow. Even if you mandate it [smart water meters], people will just put in fake cheap stuff that will promptly conk off,” she says.
Ganesh of FluxGen Technologies says that ensuring all extracted water is monitored and fairly priced is a matter of social justice. He believes that individuals with a certain income should measure their consumption.
Talking about people’s hesitancy towards the technology, Ganesh says: “When we can invest in so many expensive devices that we can live without, why not a water meter for the water we consume?”