Tony Anderson, business development manager, Arqiva Domestic water retail, Non-domestic water retail, Strategy & management, Water, Water treatment, Opinion

Tony Anderson explains why fixed networks need to be at the heart of a drive by the water sector to install fully featured smart meters across the UK.

As a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee put the water industry under increased scrutiny this month, water suppliers are continuing to assess options for improving leak identification and driving down wastage.

The committee found that three billion litres of water is lost through leaks every day across the UK’s water network, and recommended that suppliers should be allowed to make smart water meters compulsory by the end of next year.

Smart water meters have long been proclaimed as the solution to the UK’s water woes, however water leakage across England and Wales has remained static for the past decade despite the fact that around half of households now have a water meter installed.

The issue is that not all of the water meters installed are smart. Many lack the technology required to help water companies identify a leak in time to prevent it becoming a major issue. The critical element is in fact the network – over the coming years, water companies need to look towards fixed network smart water meters to reduce water wastage.

Making ‘smart’ smarter

A number of water providers have invested heavily in smart metering programmes over the past few years. The problem is that the word “smart” has often been used very loosely, and the schemes do not deliver the full benefits that fixed network smart meters can offer.

In many cases, given the limited functionality of the meters installed, water companies are reliant on annual drive-by or walk-by meter readings, gaining limited information beyond consumption and active leaks. While this is a step up from the days of traditional manual read meters, the average time between a leak starting and being fixed (run time) is estimated to be around nine months – suffice to say that in this time, wastage could have been huge.

With Ofwat challenging all water providers to achieve at least a 15 per cent leakage reduction by 2025, water companies have started revamping their strategies. Just in September, Thames Water announced it would be investing a further £11.7 billion in infrastructure and leak reduction systems.

In order to help solve these issues, water companies need smart water meters with a two-way network to deliver hourly readings every single day. This data would enable the water company to effectively reduce leak run-time to just three weeks or less. When rolled out at scale, this equates to a considerable saving of water (not to mention time and money).

Building new business models

As water companies adopt fixed network smart meters across the UK, and the amount of data available on water consumption increases, the industry will naturally look to new tools and technologies to improve resource management.

More monitoring devices will be incorporated into existing networks (such as noise and pressure loggers), advanced data analytics will extract a wealth of data around supply, and artificial intelligence solutions will inform utility companies of active leaks and aid loss prevention.

Significantly, water companies will be able to use the array of monitoring devices to accurately predict when a burst is imminent and take the appropriate steps to plugging it. However, beyond this, it also opens the door to new data-driven business models – water companies can use the data to build up a detailed picture of their customers and partner with brands in other sectors (such as insurance and social care) where the data may be of value.

In future, the smart water metering fixed network will become the base for a host of monitoring devices, and the industry will rely on networks that can carry significant amounts of data, retain a continuous connection to the host, and handle the everyday challenges of water companies. Arqiva’s fixed network ticks all the boxes.

Insight-driven customer experience

Once a reliable analytics solution is embedded at the heart of the UK’s water networks, water companies will be able to redefine customer engagement and experience in the sector, with a view to improving usage habits.

Alongside leaks, the individuals using the water have a significant impact on overall wastage across a network, and it is the supplier’s responsibility to influence consumer behaviour and provide customers with the necessary tools to use water more efficiently.

The two-way communication capability of fixed networks allows providers to remotely reconfigure alarm thresholds and instantly identify and alert customers to problems. Homeowners can access information through online portals or mobile apps, helping them closely monitor and control their habits.

All the evidence shows that if you empower consumers to reduce water consumption, they will. Through these portals, water companies can build better relationships with their consumers, and generally make them more conscious of their usage. It is a simple step many believe could lead to a 12 per cent reduction in water wastage.

The water industry is in the midst of radical transformation, as ambitious leakage reduction targets, the threat of Ofwat fines and the emergence of disruptive technologies put pressure on the industry to re-evaluate its infrastructure and wider business models.

Water companies need a smart metering solution that can drive efficiencies in the short term, but also be future proofed to keep up with the demands of this transforming market. The case for widespread deployment of fixed network smart water meters has never been more urgent, nor stronger.