By Matt Hamblen
July 22, 2016
In the city of Cedar Hill, Texas, about 15 miles from Dallas, officials realized that the population was growing and that drought and other factors were bound to drive up water costs for residents and businesses.
"Texas doesn't have nearly the issues other states have with water resources, but we're not exempt from problems," said Melissa Valadez-Cummings, assistant city manager for Cedar Hill, in a recent interview.
Many people, incorrectly, have adopted an "unlimited water resource mentality, but we realized we should do what's right for the environment and the region and what's right by the citizens. A lot of cities are in the same situation," Valadez-Cummings said.
One big factor Cedar Hill faced was how much water the community of 46,000 people was losing. "We were buying 3 billion gallons a year and only selling two-thirds of that. We had a 35% unaccounted loss," she said.
The biggest part of that loss wasn't leaks in the ground. Instead, a comprehensive review with water utility software-as-a-service provider Fathom, based in Phoenix, found that the biggest problem was meters that weren't being billed or were billed for the wrong amount.
The city worked with Fathom to replace older meters, which had to be manually read by workers, with 16,000 wireless meters that show customers their water consumption at their homes and businesses. Fathom also set up software to streamline the city's utility billing and revenue management.
With the Fathom system, customers can record average monthly water usage, then get email or text alerts when water usage is exceeding that rate within hours of when the water flow increases. A customer might discover a leaky toilet or pipe weeks before the monthly bill arrives, a potentially big savings on water and the cost for the water.
"This approach has really given people the tools to manage consumption before the bill comes in," Valadez-Cummings said.
She said city officials discovered Fathom at a conference and compared its software and system to those from Honeywell and Johnson Controls, but found Fathom had a more comprehensive approach.
The meters and software and system upgrades cost the city about $9 million. The city water utility expects to recoup that cost because of various efficiencies from the Fathom system in about seven years — half the normal 15 years expected for a major capital improvement.
In addition to the utility's efficiencies, "the rate payers love it because they reduce the window of finding out they experienced a leak, so it helps their pocket book," Valadez-Cummings said.
On the billing side, consumers also get features that allow easier access to their billing history. Water utilities typically have older billing systems that are based on one utility comparing itself to another water utility nearby. The Fathom billing system is more comparable to how consumers pay for cable or Internet services, Valadez-Cummings said.