In this chapter, we will examine water distribution meters and services
Student Learning Outcomes
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
- Describe the different types of water meters and services
- Explain the different uses of water meters
- Identify the operational and maintenance criteria for water meters
Why Water Meters?
What is the purpose and need for a water meter? Are water meters always used by water utilities? What does a water meter do and where are they used? What is a water meter? These and other questions will be answered in this text.
Purpose of a Water Meter
The primary purpose of a water meter is to monitor and record the amount of water being used by a customer. These customers can be residential homeowners, commercial buildings, industrial customers, other water utilities, and various other customers. The idea of “metering” water usage can be traced back to the early sixteenth century. However, If it rained enough to water crops and landscaping, if water was readily available equally for everyone, there might not be a need for water meters. However, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century when water meters began to be more widely used. The increase in use coincided with the growth of urbanization and industrialization.
While metering the flow of water is very common among residential and commercial drinking water supply customers throughout much of the world, it is less common with irrigated agriculture customers. Metering is also less common in rural areas and in areas where water is in abundance.
In many parts of the world, water is not always easily accessible and in order for the “people” delivering the water to communities to recover all the costs associated with delivering this coveted resource, meters are used. One of the main uses of a water meter is to measure the amount of water delivered to customers. However, meters are used to measure other volumes of water in addition to what is delivered to a customer.
Types of Water Meters
While there are many different styles of water meters, they are all based on two main methods for measuring flow: displacement and velocity. Displacement meters physically move (or displace) a given amount of water passing through the meter. Velocity meters measure the speed at which the flow of water is passing through the meter. There are a number of different water uses and meters are commonly selected based on size and need. For example, you wouldn’t want to select a small meter if very high volumes and flows are needed. Likewise, you wouldn’t want a large meter for a single-family home. Displacement meters are commonly used in small to medium flow installations and velocity meters in areas where large flows are required.
Positive Displacement Meters
Positive displacement (PD) meters are commonly used for single-family residential water uses. They are very accurate in measuring low intermittent flows. They work by means of a nutating disk or rotating piston, which creates a rotary motion transmitting to gears and then to the register. PD meters are not designed to operate at full flow for extended periods of time. Normal flows for a PD meter should not be more than approximately one half of the maximum capacity in order to extend the life of these types of meters. Common sizes range in diameters from 5/8” to 2”. If PD meters are too large for the required use, lower flows will not be properly registered. For example, if a 2” PD meter is used for a one-bedroom apartment where only indoor water use occurs, lower flows such as when someone is brushing their teeth or filling a glass of water may not be accurately measured. PD meters almost never over register and continuous operation at the maximum flow rates will quickly destroy the meter. They are designed with threaded ends and are not tapered. Therefore, a coupling with a gasket is needed for installations. This type of design allows for quick and easy installation and removal.
Piston PD meters operate by the means of a piston, which moves back and forth as the water flows through. A specific quantified volume is measured for each piston rotation. This rotating motion is transmitted to a register through a magnetic drive connection and series of gears.
Nutating-disk PD meters use a measuring chamber containing a flat disk. As water flows through, the disk wobbles and rotates (nutates) sweeping out a specific volume of water on each cycle. The rotary motion is transmitted to a register.
Velocity meters measure the flow through a chamber of specific size and known capacity. The speed of the flow is converted into volumes correlating to water usage. There are several types of velocity meters, which include, single-jet, multi-jet, turbine, and propeller meters. Electromagnetic and ultrasonic meters are also technically velocity type meters, but will be discussed later in a separate section.
Multi-jet meters use a multiblade, multiport rotor mounted on a vertical spindle within a measuring chamber. Water enters this chamber through several tangential orifices around the circumference and leaves through another set of orifices set at a different level. The “jets” of water rotate an impeller where the rotation transmits to a register. Installations requiring low flows, multi-jet meters range in sizes from 5/8” to 2”. Internal strainers are often used in order to protect the jet ports from getting clogged. Unlike PD meters, multi-jet meters can overregister. Multi-jet meters have two basic designs. One design is referred to as a “wet” register design and the other a “dry” register. In a dry register design, the register, which sits at the top of a meter, can be removed without shutting the water supply off. This is a desirable design when a register stops working or becomes damaged and can be replaced easily without disrupting usage.
Turbine and propeller meters measure the flow of water by means of a rotor. Each revolution of the rotor is proportional to the volume of water. The rotor has blades, which are angled to transform energy from the flow stream into rotational energy. The rotor shaft spins on bearings and as the water propels through the meter faster, the rotor spins proportionally faster. The accuracy is not good at low flow rates because there is some drag between the rotor and the bearing, which slows the rotation of the rotor. Propeller meters are similar to turbine meters. The main difference is with the rotating element. A propeller is made of thick molded plastic and faces directly into the flow and is suspended by a single bearing assembly. In contrast, the thinner rotor in a turbine meter is supported on both sides by two lighter weight-bearing assemblies. Common installations of turbine meters are uses where the flow is high and the variance in the flow is minimal. For example, irrigation system flows are commonly measured using a turbine meter (below right). In these installations, the flow is constant and steady. Propeller meters (below left) have similar uses, but are more commonly found on source supply installations, for example on a groundwater well. These installations also have a constant steady stream of high flows.
Venturi and Orifice Meters
A venturi meter consists of an upstream reducer, a short throat piece, and a downstream expansion section. An increase in the flow velocity results in a corresponding pressure drop and the flow rate can be deduced. As the flow of water moves through the contraction in the pipe, it speeds up and so, the pressure drops. By measuring the upstream and downstream pressures, the fluid velocity and flow rate can be calculated.
An orifice meters operates in much the same way as a venturi meter. A thin plate with a hole in the center of it is installed between two flanges. The flow rate is then calculated by measuring the pressures on both sides of the plate. These types of meters are considered differential pressure meters.
Magnetic and Ultrasonic Meters
Ultrasonic and magnetic meters operate in a similar fashion. They measure the rate of flow without any moving parts to disrupt the path of the flow. Magnetic (or Mag) meters measure the flow of water using an electromagnetic field resulting in a potential difference proportional to the flow velocity perpendicular to the electrical sensors. The pipe must be properly insulated in order to prevent corrosion from the electrical current. Ultrasonic flow meters use ultrasound frequencies to calculate a volume of flow. Transducers are used to emit a beam of ultrasound against the direction of flow. The pulses are sent in opposite diagonal directions and the sound changes with the velocity of the flow. These types of meters tend to have higher initial costs, but the ongoing maintenance costs are minimal because there are no moving parts to maintain or replace.
Weirs and Flumes
Some water systems such as when an open channel is providing a water supply to a community, a different structure is needed to measure the flow. In this particular system, a traditional style meter is not appropriate. An obstruction referred to as a weir is placed across the flow path to measure watersheds, creeks, and stream flows. The depth to which the water rises above the bottom of the weir is directly proportional to the flow. There are two main types of weirs, rectangular and V-notch. Rectangular weirs are constructed in a variety of different configurations including contracted, suppressed, broad crested, and sharp crested.
- Contracted weirs are constructed where the width of the notch is less than the width of the channel.
- Suppressed weirs have the notch as wide as the width of the channel.
- Broad crested weirs have a flat horizontal surface at the crest ranging from 6” to 15” and are usually made of concrete.
- Sharp crested weirs are made of fiberglass, corrosion-resistant metal, or wood.
V-notch weir angles are commonly 30°, 45°, 60°, and 90°. The larger the angle, the higher volume flows are measured. These types of weirs are always sharp crested design and they measure smaller flows than rectangular weirs. The rate of flow passing over the crest of any type of weir is directly proportional to the depth of water measured from the crest to the water surface. The depth measurement is always made at a distance of at least three times the height upstream of the weir so that the measurement is not affected by the sloping surface of the water approaching the weir. For example, if the weir is 10 feet, then the flow measurement would be collected approximately 30 feet upstream of the weir. The flow depth can be automatically determined and recorded by a float and a recorded installed in a device called a stilling well.
Flumes are similar to weirs and are also designed to measure the flow in an open-channel section. The principal advantage of a flume is that there are no vertical obstructions as there are in weirs. A flume narrows in the center to increase the velocity of the flow. The velocity through a flume must be high, which also helps keep the flume clean. Flumes are generally more expensive than a weir. The most common type of flume is the Parshall flume. The capacity is determined by the width of the throat of the flume, In Parshall flumes, the widths range from 1 inch to 50 feet. The depth of the flow at a particular point in the flume is directly related to the rate of flow. As with weirs, flume depths can be made by a staff gauge or automatically with a transducer.
At times both low and high flows need to be measured accurately. As previously discussed, most meters are designed to measure either low or high flows. For example, PD style meters are not good for measuring high flows and turbine-style meters are not sufficient at measuring low flows. Installations where both low and high accurate flow measurements are required; a compound meter can be used. Compound meters usually consist of a larger turbine meter, a smaller positive displacement meter, and an automatic valve to switch between the two meters. Water passes through the small meter until a certain velocity is reached and then the valve actuates to divert the flow to the larger turbine meter. Two standard meters can also be connected together to provide the same function.
Meter Selecting and Installation
As previously mentioned, meters are often selected based on the volume of water needing to be measured. Meters are commonly one size smaller than the diameter of size of the service lateral. For example, if the service lateral is 1” in diameter serving a residential home, the meter might be ¾” in size. In a typical residential housing track, it is common to have 1” service laterals and ¾” meters. However, in commercial areas, the service lateral might be sized for greater usage compared to residential units, but still might have smaller meters. For example, a 2” service lateral might be installed for a bookstore where the only usage might be a single restroom and a ¾” meter might be installed. However, if this bookstore changes the use to a restaurant and higher flows are required, the service lateral is already sized appropriately and only the meter would need to be replaced with a larger one. Therefore, it is important to size services for future potential uses.
Residential meters are typically 5/8” or ¾” in size depending on water demand. However, in some communities, residential homes might require internal fire sprinkler systems, in which case the meter size might need to be larger. There are various plumbing codes for sizing meter services and can also be dependent on the number of internal plumbing fixtures. Commercial businesses and multi-family residential homes commonly have meter sizes of 1”, 1 ½”, and 2”. If accuracy at low rates is not important and if typical flow rates between 5 % and 35% of the maximum rated capacity then a positive displacement style of meter is adequate. If accuracy of low flows is required, as well as being able to accurately measure higher flows then a compound meter should be used. Installations requiring large capacity and low flow accuracy, and flows at 10% to 15% maximum rating then a turbine meter should be selected.
Meters are generally installed in concrete or polymer boxes located in the parkway, between the curb and the sidewalk. In very cold climates, meters are installed in deep meter pits or inside buildings. Larger meters are usually installed in precast concrete vaults. Whenever possible, meters should be installed in areas protected against flooding. They should be installed with an upstream and downstream shutoff valve. A meter, angle, or curb stop is the shutoff valve on the upstream side of the meter and there is usually a small gate, globe, or ball valve on the customer (downstream) side of the meter. Meters need to be accessible for maintenance, inspection, and reading and should be protected from freezing. Whenever a utility operator visits a meter, the condition of the meter box and lid should also be checked to make sure there is not a public hazard and that they are in good condition. Registers should be sealed and should have a means of preventing tampering. Depending on the type of usage, meters can also be installed with a bypass. If it cannot be interrupted, a bypass allows for water service to be maintained while the meter is removed or repaired. Some meter installations can have multiple meters installed in series. This type of setup is a manifold installation. They are used when high flows are required and flow cannot be interrupted. One meter at a time can be removed or repaired without disrupting service.
Meters up to one (1) inch in size usually have threaded connections each side of the meter. Larger meters tend to have flanged connections. Sometimes a yoke can be used to simplify meter installations in hard to reach areas. Yokes hold the stub ends of the pipe in proper alignment and spacing to support the meter. Yokes also provide a cushion against stress and strain in the pipe. The image below shows a typical yoke.
As previously mentioned, meter boxes are usually installed on public property, but close to the property line. They should be installed in areas to protect against damage from vehicles. If a meter must be installed in a driveway, steel lids are usually sufficient to help protect the meter from vehicles. Meter couplings or flanges should be located where they are accessible and the dimensions of the meter box or vault should be adequate in size and specified prior to installation. If the meter is installed in a building, then a special valve needs to be installed on the upstream side of the service line. A curb box in either an arch-style or Minneapolis style is used in these situations. An arch-style curb box fits loosely over the top of the stop valve. These installations are adequate if the soil is firm enough. If the surrounding soil is loose, it may work its way into the box or the box may shift making access to the stop valve difficult. The Minneapolis style curb box has threads at the bottom and screws onto special threads on the top of the meter. These installations do not have the issue of shifting or dirt entering the box, but if there is damage to the curb box, damage to the meter and service line can occur.
Meter accuracy is important in order to adequately bill for the amount of water actually used. As flow passes through the body of a meter, the volume is transmitted to a register. Old style meters were equipped with circular or round registers. Some gas meters are still this style. The problem with this type of register is the difficulty to read. It is now common to have a register similar to a car odometer. Some are equipped with one or two fixed zeros. The reason for this is because water usage is commonly billed per hundred cubic feet. Therefore, with two fixed zeros, the first number to register on the meter is a one (1) with two trailing fixed zeros, indicating one hundred (100) cubic feet. Some larger meters might have a multiplier of ten (10) of one hundred (100) times. This is because usage is high and it makes it easier to keep track of this large volume of water.
There are several ways a meter can be read. The simplest and most common of reading meters is to read them directly. This requires a worker to visit each location where the meter is installed and physically read the register. It requires the meter to be accessible and clean so the register can be read. By visiting meters routinely, workers can see if the meter is being tampered with, damaged, or needs to be replaced. However, this type of reading process can be difficult in cold climates and some customers do not like meter readers visiting their homes. There is also the chance for human error. As technology advances, so do the ways meter reads can be collected. Remote meter reading is becoming more and more common. There are several types of remote meter reading technologies. One remote meter reading technology is referred to as “touch probe” reading. The meter register is connected to touch sensor with a wire. A handheld unit is connected to a probe and is placed on the touch sensor transmitting the meter read. This technology still requires a meter reader to visit each location, but there is less labor involved since the meter box lid does not have to be lifted. Another remote meter reading process is called automatic meter reading (AMR) or “drive-by”. Special electronics are attached to the meter and send out a radio frequency signal. Meter readers’ drive by each location with a computer and a receiving device to pick up the meter reads through the radio frequency signal. The last remote meter reading process is called automatic metering infrastructure (AMI). This type of technology uses radio frequencies with large antennas installed in specific locations or cellular data to transmit meter reads instantly on demand. This type of system requires significant upfront costs, but does not require any labor to read the meters. Some utilities are moving to this type of meter reading technology in order to provide customers real-time data on their water usage. This can assist utilities with their conservation efforts.
All meters are designed to measure flow velocity where the flow is laminar. If the flow has any turbulence, meters can and will often incorrectly register the meter read. Any kind of pipe bend, valve, obstruction, or change in flow direction get cause turbulence. Therefore, meter manufacturers often specify straight pipe lengths before and after the meter. These distances are typically expressed in pipe diameters. As a rule of thumb, five (5) times the pipe diameter before the meter and two (2) times the diameter after the meter. For example, if the pipe is twelve (12) inches in diameter, there should be sixty (60) inches of straight pipe before the meter and twenty-four (24) inches of straight pipe after the meter.
One of the main reasons a worker should visit a meter regularly is because some customers will attempt to steal water. Some common ways customers attempt to steal water are removing the register, turning the meter backward, or removing the meter. In addition to visiting a meter routinely, seals can be placed on the meter. Seals do not necessarily prevent pilferage, but if the seal is broken, a worker can quickly identify if the meter has been tampered.
Since meter accuracy is important, meters need to be tested to make sure they are operating correctly. Meter manufacturers often include testing results with new meters. In addition, some utilities randomly test new meters to make sure the manufacturer test results are correct. As meters age over time, they can start to under register. Therefore, a routine meter testing program is often recommended. Some utilities randomly remove meters at various ages in order to see if they are still registering properly. Customers can also request for a meter to be tested if they think their meter is not registering correctly. Meters should also be tested after any maintenance.
Some meters (usually larger ones) are testing in place, while smaller meters are typically removed from service and placed on a test bench. Regardless of the location, meters are tested in a similar fashion. A known volume of water is flowed through the meter and the register is compared to this volume. In addition, various flow rates are flowed through the meter, each time comparing the known volume with the volume recorded on the meter register. There are accuracy limits on the different rates of flow that are considered acceptable. Positive displacement meters are tested against a minimum, intermediate, and maximum flow rate, while larger meters might have four (4) or five (5) different flow rates. Below is a set of recommended accuracy limits for different types of meters.
Positive displacement, multi-jet, and turbine meters have an accuracy range of 98.5% to 101.5%. This means if 100 gallons of water are flowed through the meter and the meter registers between 98.5 and 101.5 gallons, then the meter is determined to be accurately measuring flows. The limits for propeller meters are 98% to 102% and compound meters 97% to 103%.
- Which of the following meters would be most likely to over-register?
- Positive displacement
- All of the above
- A compound meter is used when ___________.
- Low flow accuracy is required
- High flow accuracy is required
- Constant high velocities at low flows are required
- Both 1 and 2
- Positive displacement meters operate by means of a ___________.
- Nutating disc
- Electromagnetic waves
- Over time meters tend to ___________ and should be ___________.
- Over register, replaced
- Under register, replaced
- Over register, tested
- Under register, tested
- Which of the following would not be considered a flow meter?