Let’s talk water. To be precise – water leakage. With the UK predicted to be the most populous country in Europe by 2050, this is definitely a challenge for water companies. However, this is only one part of the problem.
This year, England and Wales saw a 2 per cent increase in average water leakage from 3,123m litres per day in 2016-17 to 3,183m litres daily in 2017-18. And one of the biggest reasons, as cited by water companies, is the changing climate.
Last year, the UK experienced the driest summer since 1961, and this caused the ground to dry out and move, weakening joints and cracking pipes. The UK, in particular, is challenged with Victorian-era iron pipes that are degrading and moving, as a result, allowing treated water to escape.
According to the Environment Agency, extraction of groundwater is not at a sustainable level. In addition to this, the Greater London Authority has predicted that the city is pushing close to capacity and is likely to have supply problems by 2025 and “serious shortages” by 2040.
So now, as the UK population swells in the face of water supplies that are roughly static in quantity and geographical distribution, what is it that water companies can do to stay ahead of these circumstances?
‘Stop water leaks’ is the obvious answer. But how – and particularly, how can technology accelerate this?
From a technology standpoint, the answer is data analytics and machine learning, but for many water companies, this isn’t a silver bullet for the water leakage challenge that can solve the problem alone. At present, there are several business, IT and internal infrastructure barriers that must be overcome to ensure data analytics and machine learning projects can deliver the desired results.
For instance, utility companies are often inundated with historic data, but it may be dispersed across many disparate systems and there’s a dire need to break down the silos within departments in order to connect the dots in the water journey – right from water extraction and treatment to sludge disposal, and to think holistically.
Departments within a water company have often run their own independent analytics projects. In order to address the problem at hand, all of these projects need to be aligned with each other, and all of this data needs to be centralised.
Additionally, preventing water leakage is not only an IT project. It’s a business project that’s being enabled by information technology.
Water companies have a list of all the properties they supply water to. As of today, less than 10% of households in the UK have smart meters installed.
When the number of smart meters increases substantially and data is analysed along with the volume of treated water fed into the network, companies will be able to get an accurate view of usage. At the moment, this is based on an average size of the property and an estimate of the number of people living on that property. With greater data and previous usage patterns, water companies will be in a position to have a more accurate prediction of water wastage and water leakage.
Which brings me to the topic of infrastructure and the threats posed by unpredictable weather conditions.
To manage this issue, water companies need to feed in data pertaining to the age and type of pipes along with granular weather data. Analysis of these data sources allows predictions of which pipes and geographies are likely to be affected by the changes in temperature. While they may not be able to stop a leak, water companies can focus their crew at regions that are likely to be affected.
Some companies are already seeing the benefits from data analytics platforms. In a single installation, covering five regions, over 25,000 assets from 50 asset-types are providing over a million KPIs based on over two million real-time attributes. As these data sources cover clean water treatment, water distribution, sewers, waste treatment and sludge disposal, they’re presented with a holistic view of the end-to-end water life cycle.
The final piece of the water leakage jigsaw is of course the customer. Companies that have already taken the steps mentioned are seeing a number of consumer benefits, which have also translated into business benefits. This includes a 20 per cent reduction in peak energy tariff, 5 per cent reduction in chemical costs, 10 per cent reduction in unplanned outages and 30 per cent abstraction reduction. It has also delivered a 10 per cent decrease in customer calls and a 10 per cent drop in flooding.
The next enhancement will be made possible with direct input from customers through omni-channel contact centres and via social media, and the use of machine learning. Add smart technology such as acoustic sensing to this mix and we can now keep an eye on these pipes by processing and analysing the data, even though these pipes are buried deep under the ground, to provide even greater insight.
In addition to the work in progress by a number of water companies and their suppliers, there is industry research that is already under way to find solutions that can take water leakage to an absolute zero percentage by 2050. The findings by UK Water Industry Research indicate that breakthroughs will come as a result of signal processing, wave propagation modelling, sensor development and deployment, and leak noise characterisation.
At the outset, the goal of analytics is to provide more accurate locations for leaks (even before they are visible), but eventually, to predict weak points – even before a leak erupts – to drive preventive measures rather than remedial actions.
To take commercial advantage of technology benefits, water companies need to progress by ensuring they have common data platforms with a single source of truth for data points and additional external influences.
Silos must be broken.
This, along with the growth of IoT devices, greater wireless coverage and intelligent use of data, will together be the differentiator among integrated water companies of the future.