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Stacking up ‘smart water’ investments

Water companies can now deploy multiple sensors and advanced smart meters to give them a real-time view of their operations, or to digitally model future interventions. But, when few companies reaped full benefit from previous rounds of smart metering investment, how can new programmes stack up?

As networks focus on releasing efficiency, carbon and operational gains by upgrading their infrastructure with “smart” sensors and meters, they are simultaneously grappling with basic economic conundrums. Just when will the significant investment in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems release tangible value? Without a strong regulatory driver for digitalisation, or Ofwat investment allowances to back it up, will the sector have the resources to build “smart”? How do you build a business case when smart rollouts to date – including automated meter reading (AMR) devices – have had limited impact?

And while these questions are being debated, the drive towards Open Data in the wider utilities sector, and the “Smart Cities” agenda accelerating in some part of the UK, are opening up the potential for new cross-utility synergies, but also considerable new challenges – not least selecting the right communications protocol so that Internet of Things sensors from different vendors or utilities can actually share data over open or proprietary networks.

These challenges – set against the ticking clock of net-zero deadlines and encroaching climate change – were laid out in the Capita-sponsored Smart Water panel debate on Delivering a smart water network at the Utility Week Live Summit, which was followed by an online workshop session for water sector specialists.

Workshop participants discussed how to respond to current opportunities, balanced against the 30-year perspective that utility companies need to take, and how water companies are struggling to see immediate returns from the smart meter roll out, big data and the Internet of Things.

Straight talk

From Capita, Charles Whitworth, director of strategic initiatives, said: “There are lots of competing requirements for limited capital budgets. Conceptually, everybody can see the value we’re going to get from this. But when it comes down to actually putting pen to paper, and building out the business case to support the investment, it’s more difficult to convert that into something  quantifiable and measurable.”

One workshop participant, possibly speaking from experience, summed up the dilemma: “How do we justify the expense of AMI, when we’ve already invested in the AMR? What additional benefit is it going to drive for us? How do we justify that, and what are the wider benefits across the whole system? And how do we capture that in a way that is compelling, to help justify the investment in smart systems?”

But discussion also turned to the fact that “business case” wasn’t necessarily the most useful concept, when “smart” was a transformational change that would affect every business activity.

Niko Louvranos, commercial and product lead for 5G communications at the Digital Catapult, suggested that water companies need to adopt a wider definition of value, visualising benefits across the full spectrum of their activities and into brand new territory – such as the digital modelling of their systems, benefits flowing in to call centre efficiency, or new partnerships with other utilities built on shared, accurate real-time data.

“We default to a certain number of benefits, but we’re missing the big picture a lot of times. If we can zoom out and see the bigger view, some of the qualitative benefits could be quantified. [We need to] unless we open that scope, and start taking on more of a non-traditional benefits into consideration and get agreement that they are right, then you can have a better business case. Not everything is going to be done to the pound, there could be non-tangible benefits.”

Ben Earl, formerly of Southern Water and now director of sustainability, energy and water efficiency at “disruptive” consultancy Skewb, added that water companies may need to change their internal processes and their skills profiles – such as fully analysing the data they receive then acting on it, or giving customers the behavioural prompts of monthly billing to conserve water – in order to extract full value from “smart network” investments.

“There’s actually a multiple number of different departments that can benefit from this technology, and certainly looking at demand management, we’ve never fully utilized smart meters in terms of what they’re providing, or adequately going back to customers to give them that real update on their own information. So that is a progression of different skill sets within a business, whether it’s affordability, whether it’s actually the water efficiency team connecting with the leakage team. So for me, how do you show those benefits by actually landing [smart metering] effectively as a kind of encompassing series of initiatives within the business?”

Learning from case studies

While the workshop set out the conceptual challenge and some potential answers, the panel discussion focused on practical applications. First, case studies of pilot “Smart water” projects in Australia and Sheffield demonstrated the different use cases that can contribute to a business case:  optimal pumping efficiency, improved insight into network performance that allows a move from “reactive” intervention to predictive planning; and reduced disruption and customer friction.

But –  once sensors and communication networks are actually installed – additional use cases can be stacked up. The data gathered for operating platforms can also populate “digital twins” and feed into AI algorithms; enhanced access to data about the network can offset the knowledge lost when staff retire, and cross-vector partnerships that belonged previously in pilot projects can become a reality when two or more utilities share the same data, insights and decision-making.

Dan Sullivan runs Iota Services, the commercial arm of Australia’s South East Water, one of three publicly owned water companies in the state of Victoria. He described the “Aqua Revo” water recycling trial at a new development of 420 homes, and also a wider scheme to roll out 850,000 smart meters across its patch.

Rather than installing a “digital version of a mechanical meter” (or AMR-types devices), it is installing domestic meters “packed with sensors so that they become almost edge of network devices that give us really good data in real time”. The aim was to give South East Water a much clearer picture of “what’s happening beneath our feet”.

After 50,000 installations, there was a clear quantifiable pay-back. “For every dollar we spent on sewer monitoring, we get about $3 in benefits – in early warning of sewer overflow, the avoidance of massive clean ups and regulator fines,” Sullivan said, describing how triangulating the data from different vibration sensors integrated into customers’ meters had allowed it to locate a sewer blockage at one property with pinpoint accuracy.

Sam Bright, innovation programme manager at Yorkshire Water also snapshotted what can be achieved, describing a £2 million smart water trial in a pilot area covering 20,000 customers, 23 district metered areas (DMAS) and with 18 partner companies, including smart network supplier XyLem.

Nearly 4,000 data streams – from customer meters, acoustic loggers, water quality sensors, transient pressure monitors, flow sensors and reservoir levels – feeding into an integrated network management software platform. “We were trying to push forward our understanding of what we need to do in this space,” he says, adding that the Sheffield project is now going to be scaled up across Yorkshire Water.

As he describes, the business rationale starts with leak detection, and prioritising where to send its maintenance crews. “With the platform and the data is being fed into the system takes flow data, pressure data, and acoustic data and combines all of that tell us where’s the most likely place for a leak to be. The system prioritizes the most likely locations for us to send our teams.”

But additional use cases can be stacked on this foundation. The project’s real-time data coverage creates the functionality for a “digital twin” embedded in the platform, allowing it to run accurate simulations mirroring conditions in the field. This functionality allows field engineers to “sense check” planned interventions, and can also fill gaps in individual engineers’ knowledge.

“It gives tour engineers finger-tip advice and brings data in to better decision-making. A lot of our technicians have been in the industry a long time and know their areas really well, but a third are going to be retiring in five years’ time, so all of that knowledge is going to be leaving. This kind of solution can help us mitigate that.”

Bright adds that the modelling software uses accessible “drag and drop” technology. “Modelling can be quite challenging to pick up. But this software is really trying to do what Apple did, because it’s drag and drop, and you can run a simulation within a couple of minutes..”

The presentation by Jeremy Heath, innovation manager at Sutton and East Surrey Water, also emphasised that smart networks give insight far beyond leak detection, such as opening up opportunities to analyse transit time, pressure and pressure transients.

“If we measure the temperature coming into a DMA, then measure the temperature further out in  the DMA, we start to get an understanding of how that water was heated up and cooled down over that small area. That gives us a surrogate for transit time, and can start to understand how the water is moving through the network.”

“Pressure control is another one. Instead of controlling to a single point, some companies are managing the pressure all the way across the area at variable points during the day. And also, [they’re] starting to measure those sharp pressure transients coming through the network and understanding where they’re originated from and getting rid of them.”

Elena Bricca, utilities smart infrastructure product line manager at water instrumentation company Terranova, also emphasised the need to take a wider-angled view of what can be achieved via smart networks – and to think in terms of linking water data networks to a “common data environment” shared by internal teams, external contractors and even other utilities.

“We have to change our vision about digitalisation and start considering it as an enabling factor to the transformation of our business model. It means to move from investing on operational technology system to work on a more wide digital environment – including a smart network, but also smart metering smart workforce and smart  GIS systems, and so on.”

Picking the right protocol

But once committed to a digitalisation strategy, water companies have to decide on the data communication protocol to adopt, selecting the most resilient platform with the best interoperability – in an immature market.

In Australia, South East Water has decided to adopt the NBIOT (Narrowband Internet of Thing) protocol, which uses the 4G or 5G mobile networks, as the default. “The technology is becoming quite affordable in Australia and quite widespread – three different communication companies offer it so there is competition. It’s pretty well-suited to water – it can work well in basements or in cabinets.”

At Yorkshire Water, however, Bright describes taking an “agnostic approach” by adopting NBIOT alongside LPWAN (Low Power, Wide Area Network) and FlexNet protocols, depending on advice from the supply chain. The latter two options are often used over private or proprietary networks.

Bright explained: “One of the key lessons is that we need to be looking at more than just the water industry when we talk about networks. Because there are so many other users out there that are really interested in IoT networks and trying to get the most out of them. I think there’s going to be a big push for cross-industry working in IoT deployments over the next 5 years.”

Using fibre optic cables as a sensing device could be a technology factor that helps to integrate the water network with other services and economic spheres. The bundles of fibres – either newly laid or re-purposing existing sub-surface cables – can be used to “sense” changes in the vicinity of the cable, such as vibrations, acoustic disturbances, or changes in ground conditions.

Fibre optics can potentially be an important component of a smart water network, while offering the similar potential benefits to gas and electricity companies and even transport providers – all while also carrying the data needed by our Netflix streaming habits.

As Bright says, there are no regulatory barriers in place, but the cross-vector business case is not yet in place. “Using water networks to deploy fibre is now possible in the UK, we had DWI [Drinking Water Inspectorate] approval a couple of years ago. But the technical and commercial model needs to be developed.

“Theoretically, as these IoT networks are rolled out over the coming years, we need to have the masts in those locations in order for us to use them, and those masts need to be connected via fibre. There could be a nice symbiotic relationship between telecoms and the water coming in the future, but a lot of work to do before that materialises.”

With the Environment Agency due to extend its expectations on which parts of the country are under “water stress” and can therefore move to compulsory metering roll-outs, the workshop and panel discussion offered a timely debate on how to stack up value against the high costs against the high costs of installing or upgrading AMI meters. There were no definitive answers, but the case studies and workshop drew an outline of what could be achieved, and was already being piloted.