This article originally appeared in WWD May 2020 issue as "Smart Water Starts With the Customer"
A pair of recent studies show that about 400 million smart water meters will be in use worldwide within the next five years, as demand for these smart meters grows at an annual rate of more than 10%.
What often is missing in the discussion about smart water, however, is the customer. A smart meter itself is good, but the goal of any smart water project should not simply be to automate. It should be to deliver a sustainable, healthy and affordable water supply to the customer, and the way to do that is through smart technologies.
Now that the government has placed the customer in the bullseye of new proposed water regulations, that will force water systems to use modern tools. For example, the goal of initiatives like the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) is to be proactive in protecting public health by increasing the amount of testing and implementing shorter notification periods. The old rule gave a water system 30 days to notify a customer with an exceedance; the new rule lowers the trigger limit and requires water systems to notify all customers within 24 hours.
The only way organizations will be able to stay compliant with these tightened regulations will be by consolidating and digitizing the data used in their operations, including sample results, locations, GIS and customer data. This should be the goal of any smart water effort because the ability to access this data is what empowers water managers to be responsive to the customer.
Putting together an inventory of lead service lines is the starting point for water systems that need to take advantage of modern technologies. These inventories create transparency with customers and are an ideal place to begin building trust.
The proposed LCR revisions will require that water systems not only have an inventory but to also publish it publicly so that it is readily accessible to consumers and state agencies. What’s more, this needs to be a living document, meaning that it must be published at least annually with revisions. A static map of a service area will not satisfy the rule as it is written. Water systems also will need to notify customers annually via mail about the presence of lead service lines.
While the new LCR reduces the annual replacement requirement upon exceedance to 3% from 7%, many industry experts believe that the number of lines replaced will actually increase or stay the same. This is because the replacement percentage will be based on a complete LSL inventory, which will be required and is something most systems have not yet compiled.
There are a number of water systems with LSL inventory maps, which demonstrate how the customer can be placed at the center of smart water initiatives. Notably, the city of Cincinnati gives customers the ability to search by address and complete an online form to request a quote for replacing an on-premise LSL. Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority allows customers to report known LSLs online, and Denver Water is starting a 15-year effort to replace all LSLs at no cost to homeowners.
The true smart water system will be the one that implements modern technology to meet the needs of customers for safe and reliable water. As such, smart technology will strengthen the customer relationship and make water systems more personal.