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Smart water meter innovation key to taking control of consumption

Tapping into the potential of smart water meters and delivering a smarter future for the UK’s water supply network will require a collaborative, ‘all-hands-on-deck’, approach according to Everflow founder and CEO Josh Gill.

While recent efforts to lower energy costs and decarbonise the grid through increased energy efficiency dominate customer and policymaker agendas alike, there’s far less discussion of the critical water infrastructure needed to deliver a similar transformation.

With the nation facing an increased risk of drought, it was refreshing to see the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission urging the deployment of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) within the water industry as a way to take control of our water consumption, increase efficiency and deliver enough demand reduction to improve the country’s drought resilience.

While the UK’s electricity and gas industry benefits from initiatives like the Smart Metering Implementation Programme – supporting the deployment of 53 million smart meters – AMI deployment in the water industry remains a tangled patchwork of various interest groups, all broadly committed to the same goal, but lacking a cohesive strategy capable of guaranteeing households and businesses nationwide can access this vital infrastructure.

The untapped potential of smart water meters

AMI is an essential first step for the industry to deliver a more efficient water network. Smart metering eliminates the hassle of manually sharing readings with suppliers and allows for much closer consumption monitoring.

Now, most businesses, retailers and wholesalers typically have access to the industry-standard monthly or six-monthly meter reads. With a smart meter, they can receive hourly breakdowns of the units used and the direct cost of their usage.

Access to this timely, accurate data makes all the difference in tackling inefficient water usage. You can’t begin to manage and reduce consumption of something you’re unable to measure accurately and regularly. For one thing, you need to prove to users that interventions work, and add up to the changes required.

By directly tying consumption to cost, smart metering creates a clear incentive for households and businesses to desire efficiency improvements. This can be particularly effective for SMEs, whose cost-saving water efficiency measures can quickly be overshadowed by larger operational costs.

AMI keeps the issue at the forefront of our customers’ minds, while delivering real cash benefits. For example, only recently, a logger successfully detected a leaking dual flush mechanism on one of our client’s toilets, which was fixed immediately, saving hundreds of pounds on their water bill.

  • Supporting customers through this winter and identifying emerging vulnerabilities are among the key themes at the Utility Week Forum, which will take place in London on 8-9 November. Find out more here.

Opening the data floodgates

Another key benefit of AMI is its ability to provide suppliers with regular and accurate customer consumption data directly – without which it’s difficult to benchmark national progress or devise effective strategies by evaluating interventions.

A collaborative approach to data management will also be crucial to making genuine industry-wide improvements. At Everflow, we support data sharing that allows retailers to access their customers’ smart data in a standardised format – a practice already successful in the energy industry.

At present, the limited data that exists is often shared through differing platforms in multiple formats, making it a challenge for national retailers to make practical use of the information and add value for their customers.

Around half of the wholesalers proactively share their smart metering data with Everflow already, and we’ve been able to work collaboratively with them to target high-consuming customers, identifying issues and potential leaks as a result.

Using their smart meters, Thames Water – which covers a highly water-stressed area – reported that 26% of its non-household consumption is continuous flow, with only a small portion used in business processes. Wider AMI deployment and greater data sharing among key industry stakeholders could deliver real benefits here.

Turning the tide

Despite the clear potential that AMI holds for the water industry, there remain critical barriers impeding its widespread deployment.

One of the most significant is funding. Unfortunately, current price caps alone are insufficient for organisations like Everflow to provide smart meters to customers for free. While the chair of NIC advocated an increase in bills to cover AMI, amidst the current cost-of-doing-business crisis, a further increase in utility bills is undesirable. The high costs of installation, combined with tight margins, hampers demand for the product. As a result, many wholesalers are not incentivised to support the smart water meter roll-out. And some wholesaler processes add significant delays and costs to the (few) business customers who are willing to pay for smart data loggers.

The muddled nature of metering ownership similarly hinders deployment, with regulation only requiring wholesalers to be responsible for the maintenance and replacement of smart water meters, not their deployment. At the same time, wholesalers cannot replace all traditional meters because of asset life limitations.

While the lack of progress to date is disappointing, the challenges are not insurmountable. Similar to the energy market, there’s a need for greater government investment to spread the costs of AMI more evenly. For instance, wholesalers must simplify the costs of their processes to install meters, and funding or credit options should be made available to retailers to support a more collaborative rollout. There are also cost-saving measures we could learn from the energy market, where many smart energy meters cannot be used if a customer decides to switch providers. This lack of interoperability is costly and wasteful, and the water industry should aspire to smooth asset transfers.

Ultimately, a comprehensive national strategy and regulatory support can provide industry stakeholders with the support to step up and make AMI more accessible and affordable for households and businesses across the country, better positioning them to reduce water use and deliver national water demand targets.

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