Technology company Subeca offers a total water management platform for water utilities that goes beyond the capabilities of a conventional advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) solution. It uses meters, sensors, and valves to provide utilities and customers with intelligence about water operations and potential problems like leaks and to enable them to react remotely. Further, its customer-facing portal, Engage, not only provides information about water consumption to end users but can also be set up to enable them to control shutoff valves, monitor irrigation systems and consumption, and operate other elements of their home systems. In this interview, Chief Strategy Officer Hank McCarrick provides insight into Subeca’s solution and how it is helping utilities around the country.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Hank McCarrick: My original background was in semiconductor engineering. I was on the process side of developing integrated circuits for companies like Motorola, McDonnell Douglas, and Hughes Aircraft. From there, I took my first venture into being an entrepreneur: I developed a platform that monitored the process gases used to manufacture integrated circuits. That company was pretty successful, and it was subsequently acquired. Today, Subeca is doing with water what I did with semiconductor gases many years ago.
My introduction to the water utility market occurred when I was a customer. It was a simple thing: I got a notice from a water utility encouraging me to conserve water and to go lift the lid on my meter box and take a peek at the numbers. When I opened my meter box, I saw a bunch of spiders and thought it was a pretty poor process. I saw a need for a platform that allowed customers to understand what was going on with their water. As a process engineer, I could see that this industry was ripe for innovation. I applied a methodology similar to the one I used at the first company. I knew that this was a system approach, not a widget approach. We required sensor technologies to provide consumers the information they needed, telemetry to get the signals from the ground to wherever they needed to go, and a customer-facing presentation to make sense of it all.
Municipal Water Leader: How did the company develop?
Hank McCarrick: At the beginning, I didn’t think we had a prayer, going against all the big meter companies that had been entrenched for more than half a century. But it was clear to us that the end customers didn’t have the tools that they needed to do the job of managing water, so we decided to be customer focused. We provided our first platforms to companies such as Pepsi Cola; the California Department of Transportation; the University of California, Irvine, Medical Center; hotels; and homeowners’ associations, all of which are heavy water users. The initial product line was a traditional SCADA platform that was hardwired—it had to be plugged in the wall. We knew that it wasn’t an appropriate AMI solution for water utilities. If we were going to satisfy their requirements, the product had to be battery operated and the batteries had to keep running for several decades. We started trying to figure out what kind of telemetry and web services should be used. We looked into the technologies that seemed to have the most promise. Fortunately, we made a couple of good guesses in the beginning, one of them being choosing LoRaWAN as the radio frequency telemetry platform for our products.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you still market your solutions to industrial installations and homeowners’ associations, or is your main market today municipal water districts and similar larger-scale entities?
Hank McCarrick: Today, municipal water districts and utilities are our only market. We have stepped away from the industrial market. The utility market is a big fish, and it takes all our attention.
Municipal Water Leader: Please describe your solution and the various hardware and software elements that go into it.
Hank McCarrick: Subeca offers a platform for water utilities and their customers to manage water more efficiently, not just an AMI solution. Our hardware products use a common water intelligence core module called BLINC, which incorporates both Bluetooth5 and LoRaWAN. This dual network approach satisfies the need for high-speed data delivery at the endpoint location while also delivering long-range data transmission for remote device management. The Subeca BLINC core products include a smart water meter replacement register called Pin, a smart sensor hub called Link, and a water shutoff valve called Act.
On the software side, device management is delivered through Subeca Engage cloud-based web services. Subeca Engage provides a water management portal for water utilities and water agency customers. Subeca Engage is designed around Amazon Web Services (AWS), including AWS Internet of Things (IoT) Core for LoRaWAN. Engage provides customers with personal portals to which they can add devices such as valves to prevent leak loss or damage, flow meters to measure outdoor use, or moisture sensors to gain a complete water management experience. Similarly, water agencies can add IoT devices to the water system that can be integrated into the Engage platform through the agency-controlled LoRaWAN network.
Municipal Water Leader: What is generally understood to be an AMI system, and how does Subeca’s system differ from that?
Hank McCarrick: As the meaning of the acronym implies, AMI focuses on the delivery of meter readings only. The Subeca platform goes beyond meter reading by providing a true smart-agency IoT experience. System pressure, tank level, fleet tracking, and water quality sensors are just a few of the devices that can be added to the Subeca Engage platform. If the water purveyor happens to be a municipality, it can add other sensors, such as street lighting and parking, as well as waste management devices. On the consumer side, the Subeca platform provides an opportunity to create or enhance a smart home environment that maximizes control and integrates water use with water management devices.
Municipal Water Leader: What is LoRaWAN, and what advantages does Subeca’s use of a LoRaWAN-based network provide?
Hank McCarrick: LoRaWAN is an open long-range network, based on the LoRa modulation technique, that originated in Europe. The name derives from the phrase long-range wide-area network. LoRaWAN can transmit data over long distances with very low output power. This makes the network ideal for devices that must be battery powered and must achieve long battery life. There are over 500 companies producing IoT devices for LoRa. This allows water agencies that have moved to a LoRaWAN network to pick from an ever-growing catalog of add-on solutions and operational intelligence.
Municipal Water Leader: What sort of data can Subeca provide to utilities and customers?
Hank McCarrick: Any LoRaWAN-connected sensor is a candidate for providing data to water utilities through the Subeca Engage platform. Examples include pressure sensors at customer endpoints, hydrants, or any other location in the distribution system; soil moisture sensors; tank level sensors; and water quality sensors. Legacy AMI is typically limited to end-point water demand quantification and ignores the water production side of the equation.
On the customer side, rebated products such as moisture sensors, shut-off valves, and irrigation flow sensors can be added by the customer. These devices can then be accessed through personalized Engage consumer dashboards. This allows end-point consumers to achieve water use efficiency at their properties as never before.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your Subeca Engage portal. Is it intended for individual residential customers to be able to monitor the water use their own homes?
Hank McCarrick: Absolutely. There are already several customer-facing dashboards out there, including WaterSmart and Dropcountr. Visitation to those sites by end customers is typically under 20 percent. Customers may take a brief look at their water use history, but they probably won’t go there unless they’ve got a high bill. That can be changed only if you make the dashboard far more engaging, which is why we named our platform Engage. We saw the need to make it an application rather than just
a web page that customers passively look at. That meant integrating devices that were useful to the end customers. For example, our platform allows customers to easily add a moisture sensor or the controls for a shutoff valve to their house to the same dashboard that the water utility provides them. We have a sort of cookbook of devices that we can put onto our platform, which water utilities can make available to their customers through the optional dashboard rebate store. That way, customers can look at their dashboards, see what devices are available, and click on the ones they want. The devices show up on their doorsteps and are installed as part of the water management experience. Customers are much more likely to visit a customer-facing dashboard if it can be used to control an irrigation system than if it simply displays information about historical use. That’s the direction we’re taking. We eventually want to make these devices communicate with each other autonomously.
Municipal Water Leader: What would be some of the use cases for shutoff valves?
Hank McCarrick: There are a number of use cases. We offer those remote shutoff valves to utilities as well as to customers. The utilities might want to use them for service interruption, for example if there is a broken pipe at the customer site between the house and the meter box. Some agencies will actually shut off or throttle service in the case of nonpayment or tenant turnover. What is distinctive about what we do is that we allow the water utility to share that valve with the customer. That way, the customer is alerted if they have a leak in the house, have left the faucet on, or have a stuck irrigation valve and can resolve the leak or shut the water off, either locally or remotely.
Municipal Water Leader: Does using Subeca’s technology involve a complete replacement of all metering infrastructure and software, or can Subeca also adapt or upgrade existing systems?
Hank McCarrick: Perhaps the biggest strength of the Subeca Platform is the ability to retrofit existing meters with the Subeca Pin without disrupting customers’ water service. The meter retrofit time is a fraction of what is required to shut down a customer service, remove the meter, and replace it with a new meter. New meters can be phased in as required by their age.
Municipal Water Leader: What is meant by the Smart City concept, and how does Subeca’s system further it? How might a utility using a Subeca system integrate into a broader Smart City?
Hank McCarrick: The Smart City concept is intended to deliver city or utility workforce efficiency, environmental stewardship, sustainability of utilities, and an enhanced quality of life for residents. The applications and devices that fill the Smart City bucket help with asset tracking, lighting control, traffic management, and tracking available parking. The biggest challenges for smart cities are the aggregation of data from disparate sources and the interpretation of these data for the use of the need-to-know parties. A big step in the right direction is the implementation of open wireless networks on which numerous devices can send data to target applications. LoRaWAN and cellular networks will soon carry data for over 80 percent of deployed IoT devices. When a water utility deploys a LoRaWAN network, it can allow the city access to the network. This gives the city a big push in the smart direction.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some of the results your customers have seen from using your products?
Hank McCarrick: We have already assisted customers in discovering large leaks in irrigation systems, water left on in hoses, and vacated apartments where a faucet is left running. With leaks, even a small pinhole can slowly develop into a larger and larger leak. It is useful to see those early on—they will show up on our system as the loss of a fraction of a gallon per minute. If those leaks are not detected, they will grow. Users can lose a lot of water quickly. We sometimes see the equivalent of several swimming pools of water being consumed in a week from an irrigation leak.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your vision for the future.
Hank McCarrick: The future is bright for water utilities, as innovation is on the rise on many fronts. Subeca’s focus is to enable the creation of smart water homes and smart water utilities through innovative products, networks, and web services. Subeca is working closely with Amazon to deliver on our vision. In our vision of the future, water utilities and their customers will become seamless partners in driving water supply resiliency.
There is more and more focus on the consumer, because sustainability efforts are not going to succeed without sleeves-up partnership participation by those end users. They have to be part of the formula. Our focus is on finding the best tools to make end customers participants in the whole process. We call that converting customers into partners in water conservation. A punitive paradigm isn’t going to work. Customers need to feel like they have the power to help. We want to see agencies make them partners, rather than just customers out there waiting for the bad news on the next bill.