As water utilities are able to store water in large quantities, their costs of supply don’t vary over time and so there is no need for smart metering, right? Wrong – and in fact the need for smart metering and other smart elements on water networks has never been greater. With the maturing of these technologies, their time is now here.
Challenges facing water utilities
Water utilities are to a greater or lesser extent, facing essentially three evolving challenges – not dissimilar to those faced by their energy counterparts.
One is the pressure on the supply of water. Populations are increasing, but extraction levels and storage reservoirs are finite in capacity. Climate change is also changing rainfall patterns, with the result that even in a country such as Britain, areas such as the southeast are classified as “water stressed” and prone to water shortages.
The utility may build new storage reservoirs but these are usually intrusive and may need to be located distant from population centres. Another option is to reduce leakage, but this raises the broader challenge of ageing infrastructure. Exact figures for leakage aren’t known, but these are thought to average 20-25% in countries such as Britain, and in some areas may run as high as 50% or more. Notably dripping taps and other behind-the-meter leakage is a frequently ignored but significant contributor, potentially accounting for a fifth to a quarter of the total leakage.
The third factor is the operational costs. Each step of the water supply chain incurs a cost, from extraction to purification to delivery, but it is the energy costs for pumping that are the most significant, resulting in the water utility being a major user of energy. That the peak demand for water usually coincides with peak demand for electricity, and thus when it is at its most costly, exacerbates this issue.
Smart technology to the rescue
Reductions in the levels of leakage and the operational costs could contribute to both better conservation and management of the resource and an improved bottom line for the utility – and smart water technology brings solutions to both.
For example smart water meters offering time-of-use tariffs could contribute to reducing the operational costs by encouraging consumers to shift non-essential usage, such as topping up a swimming pool or operating a garden sprinkler, to energy off-peak times.
A potential option to the ageing infrastructure issue is simply to replace all the ageing pipes. However, this is expensive and won’t necessarily target the problem pipes. Unlike the older leak detection technology such as acoustic listening devices and loggers, the modern technology allows a more proactive approach to leak detection and enables the problem areas to be better targetted. Further, on the customer side of the meter, unlike the older mechanical meters, the latest generation of water meters allows detection of the low flow levels, below 1l/hr, which are typical of such leaks.
District metering area smart water solution
In principle the smart water solution is straightforward – a district metering area is set up and the amount of water going in is measured and compared with the water consumed by all the outlets in that area. Any difference will be in leakage.
Smart water meters with bi-directional communication allow measurement of water usage in near real-time. Besides the possibility mentioned above of introducing time-of-use tariffs, these can also enable an accurate assessment of individual customer leakages, as well as the supply of accurate bills based on actual consumption.
They are also enabling, like smart electric meters, increasingly a remote disconnect/reconnect valve into new water meters, enabling better management of change of property ownership and non-payment. And like for the electric utilities, the savings come in the form of reduced house visits by utility personnel.
Regulation to the fore
The United States is the leader currently in the development of a smart water infrastructure. For example, a recent survey of US water utilities by Zpryme found that nine out 10 have a smart water plan. The focus of these is primarily on smart metering and billing but the capabilities are expected to expand as the utilities gain more experience with smart water technologies.
In Europe regulatory oversight has led the development of smart metering and smart grids in the region. However, such oversight has been largely lacking for smart water networks but will be crucial to stimulate their development.
Forward-looking utilities, such as Thames Water in the UK, which is piloting smart water technologies, can also take a lead. The introduction of smart water networks also enables the introduction of new services, such as home monitoring for leaks while the customer is on holiday. Those utilities will almost certainly be regarded more highly for their customer service, meaning reduced costs in dealing with complaints and consumer advocates for the company. In a competitive environment, those companies will ultimately be the winning companies.