Smarty Pipes

May 14, 2020

An overview of the smart water trend & what it means for the industry’s future

About the author:

Bob Crossen is managing editor for WWD. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

Ask most metering manufacturers about smart water, and they will tell you they have been offering smart water technology for the past decade. Products have made the jump to wireless transmissions with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), and all the data for each unit is tracked and stored in cloud-based servers. Much like the fitness industry gives customers a closer look at their health data—heart rate, sleeping patterns, steps, etc.—the data points from these meters are provided to utility customers so they can better analyze and understand their water use.

Utilities have been storing this data for decades, but often the information is stored in a room on sheets of paper in a box that has collected dust from little to no interaction. For Dan Pinney, director of AMI development for Sensus, this highlights one of the important aspects of smart water: Simply having AMI does not make a system smart; actively engaging with the data is critical.

“Having AMI fundamentally allows you to collect metrologic data,” Pinney said. “Having a smart water system allows you to collect data from a lot of different sources across the complete water cycle and then take action remotely based on what that data and the combination of data tells you is best for that particular situation.”

Travis Smith, director of North American water strategy for Sensus, noted that measuring multiple devices and water sources—which meshes smoothly with the one water framework—also is an important tenet of smart water. Data can be collected from the source water, the entire treatment process, the distribution network, collection systems, reclamation systems, discharge quality and everything in between. By actively monitoring all those data points, he said operators can make better and quicker decisions about their particular systems.

“We define that piece of looking at the water cycle as actively monitoring all of it and dynamically optimizing those pieces that are right for optimization in one specific utility at the right time for that utility,” Smith said. “In a short elevator speech, it’s actively monitoring and dynamically optimizing the entire water cycle.”

The Technology Convergence

With the evolution, innovation and development of newer technologies, Smith said that smart water is starting to mature into something more meaningful. More parameters can be measured, communicated and analyzed than ever before. Those measurements, he said, are starting to provide new insights for plant managers and operators. 

“All three of those areas have matured in technology—affordability, longevity and reliability—to make this practical,” Smith said. “When we look at measurement of different parameters, it allows us to measure pieces like how we move the water throughout the water cycle—pressure, level, friction, flow, water quality, what’s in the water. So all the parameters, whether it’s raw water, potable water or wastewater or even storm water, we can measure the parameters of that water, and we can measure things that affect operational conditions.”

Pinney echoed Smith on the increase in parameter measurements being a shift forward for smart water. He also said that products now are more resilient, and the cost of initiating a smart water upgrade has become more affordable. 

More important, though, is how all these parameters open up new ways of looking at and understanding data in a water or wastewater system.

“What’s really changed over time is the ability to measure a lot of other things besides just the volume of water that’s going through the system,” Pinney said. “[It also is] its ability to, in near-real time, combine and manipulate that data to show you data that you never had before.”

And those metrics ultimately will measure and monitor the entire system, not just distribution or volume. Measuring at every step follows the one water approach, which Smith said is an important aspect because “it’s the same water that’s processed, moved or measured or treated throughout all those pieces of a water utility.” This holistic, one water look is a paradigm shift for utilities that normally view things compartmentally, and Smith said relating those compartments to one another can be beneficial for many utilities.

While both Smith and Pinney were excited about how relating processes to one another and developing new analytics could shape the future for water systems, they both recognized that access to this much data and all the parameters it entails can provide an initial shock.

“Utilities can be a bit overwhelmed with all that they can do, so they start off with key issues that are hindering them,” Pinney said. As an example, he said utilities that struggle with combined sewer overflows (CSO) may install gauges to track CSOs to better understand where, why and when they occur. “They will put very specific, targeted measuring systems and control systems on those types of things to help alleviate that problem because they couldn’t really affordably do it before.”

Pinney said that for utilities looking to make their systems smarter, starting with a narrow parameter such as CSOs, a specific discharge limit or a targeted quality in the water is the best introduction. Then that depth of analysis and understanding can be applied to other aspects in the future. He said this narrow focus also makes these smart water upgrades more affordable at the outset.

“We see—across the spectrum—people attacking it from different ways just because they have different problems,” Pinney said. “But very few people are fully implemented in a total water cycle. I think it is an evolutionary thing.”

The Pressure Management Trend

With most utilities starting their smart water approach with specific targets in mind, a popular trend for introducing smart water has cropped up. Specifically, Smith said the measurement, analysis and use of pressure data has been the most popular utilization.

“Either reducing water main bursts or limiting or mitigating leakage through the system, particularly targeted at specific segments of their distribution system,” Smith said. “That solution is typically applicable to most utilities and has been very, very popular.”

This falls in line with the view of managing pressure in zones throughout a system. Maintaining optimal flow in one area of the distribution system may require different pressures than other areas. Gravity, friction, elevation, network size and other factors all contribute to this determination, so finding ways to capture data to relate those elements to each other is a common first step.

“When you begin to understand [pressure] and relate that to flow and specific elevation, you have a lot more tools in your engineering capabilities to solve problems and understand the operations of your system and save costs,” Smith said. 

For many utilities, pressure sensors already are installed. Smith noted that they can use existing measurement tools to develop smart water action plans, as it saves on the upfront cost of equipment. By targeting pressure management, those utilities can affect their bottom line—notably non-revenue water—which could create or reveal new revenue for future improvements.

He said this is especially true for smaller utilities, particularly rural ones or those with vast geographic networks. With proper measurement tools throughout the distribution system, operators can prioritize specific issues to better manage their time on the clock—another potential cost saving.

Pinney said for smaller utilities, finding a way to break down the cost barrier is a critical step for solutions providers.

“For small systems, yes, they have less capital, but they also have less resources from a human perspective,” Pinney said. “It’s not uncommon to have the guy who is reading meters also be the guy fixing a leak or [the guy who] is supposed to be exercising valves or hydrants or other things like that. When you provide the technology, it allows them to redirect those resources to whatever the next big issue is.”

When these systems are implemented, Smith said they provide a closeness to the data and the system that goes beyond just keeping a system running. For operators, they will have a deeper understanding of the finer details of their system. Meanwhile, the end users also can have access to detail about their water use and the system.

“They’ll have more data, more tools and more information to make better decisions,” Smith said. “Ideally, they’ll have some analytics and tools to do scenario planning and modeling before they make a change to be assured that that risks have been mitigated.” 

The Next Big Steps

“I think it’s a natural evolution of the technology,” Pinney said of the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as it relates to smart water.

Several companies already are introducing AI and machine learning into the water and wastewater treatment industries. They primarily have targeted distribution system optimizations—namely, leak discovery and non-revenue water solutions—and services that can comb through decades of stored data at a utility to provide new insights into the long-term trends of a utility’s system. Pinney said AI and machine learning can open additional doors by bringing in data points from outside the system.

“Especially with changing weather patterns and seasonality, trying to apply a specific algorithm doesn’t necessarily work at any given time, so you’ve got to be dynamic with those and learn how the patterns change over time and what are the influencing characteristics of that—whether it’s rain or flooding or whatever it may be—that’s changing how your algorithm is supposed to act,” Pinney said.

He also noted that he sees the potential for AI to improve the experience of residents and other end users.

“Where we see a lot of that machine learning and data analytics is across the billing side of things and being able to take actions that provide better customer service based on patterns and things that are happening throughout the course of time,” Pinney said. 

Whatever their use, Smith said AI and machine learning are not going away.

“As machine learning and artificial intelligence out there—either in the measurement device or the communications device—continues to be more adaptable, affordable and pervasive throughout the electronic industry, that will make it more affordable, [and] allow those assets to have a longer life cycle and [offer] better return on investment,” Smith said. “They’ll be more applicable to the small utilities.”

Closing The End User Gap

Dan Pinney, director of AMI development for Sensus, said what has surprised him most about smart water applications is just how close they allow the utility to get to the end user. 

“It has always been that utilities would apply the technology at typically the large type of places—pump stations, lift stations, things like that—but the affordability of the technology is allowing it to be placed across the whole water cycle and has gotten very close to being able to provide technology and take action at the customer site,” Pinney said.

Using pressure as an example, he said utilities could provide not only the volume of water flowing through a customer’s site, but also the pressure at that site. By providing this kind of information, Pinney said it shows the true service level that is being delivered to the end user.

Travis Smith, director of North American water strategy for Sensus, said residential users are not the only beneficiaries of this approach.

“We had a utility measure pressure where they were providing water for an internet service provider so they could ensure a higher quality of service, which kept that internet service provider within that utility area,” Smith said. “That provided greater service and greater jobs for the area and economic growth across the entire municipality.”


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