News Feature | June 29, 2015

In Drought, Smart Meters Prompt Privacy Concerns

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Smart water meters are being used for a non-traditional purpose in California, where authorities are trying to enforce conservation measures during the drought.

When Governor Jerry Brown mandated that water use be cut by 25 percent compared to 2013 levels, some waters utilities found the restriction difficult to institute. Water departments, after all, are not “spy agencies,” as a recent Wired article pointed out. The Long Beach Water Department, for instance “doesn’t have the resources to conduct surveillance or stage sting operations to catch water wasters in the act.”

Smart water meters are bridging the gap for some utilities, as the technology is increasingly used to monitor water wasting, Wired reported:

Traditional water meters essentially provide a running tally of how much water a customer has used. Your bill is based on your current total, minus last month’s total. The utility has no idea how much water you actually use on a day-to-day basis, let alone what time of day you use the most water. But to enforce water restrictions, utilities need to know exactly that. The Long Beach Water Department is one of a small but growing number of utilities turning to electronic “smart” meters to solve the problem.

The use of utility data for purposes other than billing has sometimes prompted suspicion from customers. In previous year, the energy industry has encountered criticism for the release of ratepayer data. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The American Civil Liberties Union warned that energy-use information represents one more way for government agencies to peer into Americans' lives. The release comes in the wake of recent disclosures about how the National Security Agency uses cell phone ‘metadata’ and other personal electronic records when investigating national security threats.

One group called Smart Grid Awareness has alleged that smart water meters expose customers to potential privacy breaches, although this is not a mainstream concern. “[The features of smart meters mean] that you would be subjected to constant surveillance, even though no mention is made of customer privacy invasions by vendors or utilities. Moreover, combined with the granular data collected by smart electric meters, an even clearer picture emerges on your behaviors in the home,” the group argues.

Smart water meters are not just being used to get people in trouble. “Many people just want to use less water and want more immediate feedback on their usage than monthly water bill can provide. So as part of a pilot program, the Water Department [in Long Beach] also gave out around 200 smart water meters to residents. [A department official] says the city believes they are having an impact,” Wired reported.

Some water utilities are resistant to smart water meters, according to Wired, since conservation challenges revenue and because installation is costly.

For more on the latest metering innovations, visit Water Online’s AMR, AMI and Metering Solutions Center.