Water needs to go a step beyond metering to smart networks

Increasing demand by a growing population, climate change, escalating energy prices and an ageing infrastructure are all combining to build pressure on our water networks. How we all manage and consume water needs to evolve to cope with future demand. New technologies are emerging that will improve distribution network operations and efficiencies, as well as making consumers more aware of the cost - and hence affect how they use water.

The installation of smart water meters in homes across the UK has been widely discussed; however, the discussion about the potential benefits of a “smart water network” to ensure that the water network itself is efficient and therefore sustains demand has not been resolved.

Similar transformations are taking place in the energy world and the industry has been galvanised by the formation of the Smart Grid Task Force and the Low Carbon Networks Fund. These initiatives, driven by government and Ofgem, have led to business cases being developed and numerous projects initiated to investigate how the local electricity network could evolve to cope with increasing demand and a shift to low-carbon renewable energy sources. In water, however, we have not seen the same recognition of how real-time data from the network could transform water operations.

Could a Smart Water Task Force incorporating the government, regulators, water companies and vendors provide the necessary leadership? Such a body could have the authority to build reference models and business cases, which operating companies could reference as they negotiate their business plans with Ofwat and possibly bring an order of change, improving the cadence of how we manage our water resources in the future.

By creating a smart water network, companies would be able to monitor pressure, flow rate, levels, water quality and ground temperatures; reduce instances of pressure-induced bursts on the network; and detect and repair leaks faster. Such a network could also improve the safe handling of wastewater, offering more advanced levels of control and reducing the number of unplanned sewage discharges.

The problem is, the business case for a smart water network is still evolving. Water metering alone doesn’t bring all the benefits that sensors within the network could deliver, and on its own is difficult to justify fixed communication infrastructures. As with energy, though, the greatest potential business gains for water utilities will be in the development of methods to retrieve real-time information from within the water distribution network, as well as from smart water meters.

By having a national forum leading the development of a best practice approach, water companies could demonstrate how real-time data from their distribution networks would enable them to meet the increasing economic and environmental demands placed upon them, and serve their customers more effectively. It could be done via a common industry-wide vision based on agreed-use cases that would demonstrate the operational improvements and economic benefits of this approach. This would in turn enable regulators and utilities to invest with confidence in technologies that will drive a change in our water network performance.

Water is a difficult resource to manage because of the number of treatments required, droughts, leakages and increasing demand and consumption from industries and consumers. It is clear that we need to look towards ways to improve today’s ageing infrastructure. Add in the high energy costs associated with supplying water, and the increased consumption resulting from improving living standards, and it is clear that we need a more sustainable way of delivering water resources.

Smart water networks are an important part of the solution to these challenges. However, concerted leadership and strong support will be essential to drive change: a Smart Water Task Force could provide this. If the government took the lead and all other appropriate stakeholders supported it, a vision beyond smart metering could be established and an important opportunity would not be lost.

Investing in the basic functionality of walk-by or drive-by water meters would lock out the potential for important innovative embedded network solutions and the benefits these would bring. We stand at a crossroads in the industry, with many important choices to be made. Let’s ensure we consider the impact of all of them fully before committing to investments that will define the water sector in the UK for a long time to come.

Andy Slater, director, Sensus

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 7th September 2012.

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