We recently had the chance to speak with Tom McLaughlin, vice president of engineering at Aclara, a subsidiary of Hubbell Inc. Aclara creates smart infrastructure solutions for water, electric, and gas utilities. Aclara’s end to end solution gives utility providers actionable insights into utility customers’ resource consumption with real-time visibility into distribution networks to optimize management of vital commodities.
Aclara’s water infrastructure technology was recently adopted in Silicon Labs’ hometown by Austin Water, the City of Austin’s water and wastewater utility, and Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the largest electric Co-Op in the nation. Below, Tom explains how the water technology works and his insight on why Aclara’s solutions are helping the utilities market evolve by improving resource efficiencies for end consumers.
Tell me about Aclara.
Aclara was founded with a mission to partner with gas, water, and electric utilities to develop smart infrastructure solutions that meet the needs of their customers. My responsibility is focused on building the advanced metering infrastructure systems supporting these efforts.
Can you tell us about the water metering infrastructure technology and how it is used?
In the water industry, our radio frequency-based AMI solution – Aclara RF™ – consists of endpoints connected to water meters that communicate data read from meters to data collectors via licensed frequencies that are owned the utility. Data from the collectors is transmitted back to the utility. In the water industry specifically, initial use cases were centered around gathering basic data on water consumption.
Today, the endpoints have evolved to be much smarter and can perform more intelligent tasks, such as leak detection and tamper detection. Our software platform, AclaraONE®, now enables the utility to extract valuable analytics and data for operators that help them serve their customers better as well as manage water distribution.
How does Aclara’s technology help specifically with water leakage?
Leakage is a huge problem. Many parts of the country have incredibly outdated water utilities. For example, where I live in St. Louis, some of the pipe downtown is still from the 1800s. The pipes are made from wood, and they're being retrofitted with inserts that try to curb the leaks. In some places within the U.S., 20 to 30 percent of the water meant to be delivered to end consumers is lost to leaks. In other parts of the world, that percentage is even higher.
There are two primary components of Aclara’s solution that address leak detection. The first, after the data is collected, is analyzing it to determine whether a premise has a leak. Our customers, such as DC Water, use data analytics to determine if there's a leak in a home or business and notifies the customer. The second piece is our leak detection system, where we place acoustic sensors that “listen” to the sound of water in mains and communicates that data to the utility over our AMI network. By analyzing the acoustic data, we can localize where a leak is - down to a meter or two. That's proven very helpful for the utilities and we've deployed many of these water sensors.
How is Silicon Labs technology used in your product?
We've partnered with Silicon Labs for a long time. Our Aclara RF product operates in the 450 to 470 MHz band. We specifically use the Silicon Labs Sub-GHz Si446X EZRadioPRO transceivers as a core piece of our system. We needed our product to be extremely high quality, highly accurate, and meet certain FCC rules, specifically Part 90 Mask D. Not all silicon vendors can meet these requirements, but the Si4460 is Part 90 Mask D compliant, while also satisfying all our needs for a high-performance, low-current wireless transceiver.
In addition, the Silicon Labs support team has been incredibly reliable through the years. The applications and field engineers that we've worked with have been top notch, helping us drive solutions to problems.
What other design challenges did you experience?
Power is still a huge issue in the water and gas industries. We create endpoints that communicate with meters and require a 20-year life, which is extremely difficult to do for a piece of electronics, especially when they are communicating several times a day. We needed a very low power transceiver to enable such a lengthy battery life.
Another key issue is flexibility. When you analyze numerous transceiver and radio parts, you realize vendors have different philosophies in terms of how much they allow their customers to configure their devices. The Silicon Labs solution has just the right amount of flexibility, allowing us to configure all the areas we need adjusted for our products.
How do sustainability and mounting climate concerns impact Aclara’s offering?
Electric, water, and gas infrastructures are evolving rapidly to support technologies being developed to combat climate change, such as electric vehicles, photovoltaics, and distributed generation. A major tenet for Aclara is always asking ourselves how our systems can better optimize and automate the distribution networks to better support all these valuable technologies.
How do you see IoT changing in the next five to eight years?
I think industrial IoT will continue to accelerate we’ve already gone through the phase where you get things connected and can deliver data, so now we’re discovering how to extract information out of said data. The answer is really in the analytics. This analysis may happen in a distributed way, with edge computing devices that look at the information and make decisions on how to optimize the network and the devices on the network. Eventually, we will move to using this information in an automated way.