Water is a precious resource that is taken for granted by many and simultaneously not available for many more. Utilities around the globe therefore not only face the challenge of measuring water consumption and billing their customers accurately, but must also take steps to save water proactively.
Leaks and burst pipes can be a major pain-point for utilities. In fact, one third of utilities around the globe report a loss of more than 40% of clean water due to leaks. Non-revenue water (NRW) can take various shapes, from a leak that is not detected by the utility over time, to a burst pipe that causes major damage to infrastructure. Both situations amount to the utility losing resources and failing to preserve water. What, then, can be done?
Adopting a holistic approach to water management
Being able to pinpoint the exact location in the network where there is the potential for or an occurring leak is vital. Even in areas that report low leakage levels, vigilance and ongoing monitoring of the network is imperative if the reduction in leakage levels is to be maintained within economic parameters.
Using a holistic approach to water management, utilities can bring many complementary technologies together. The right analytics can then transform compiled data into usable information. A smart water platform will include:
- Optimal instrumentation, which provides accurate data at every stage of the process, from source to consumer
- A robust and secure wireless communication network that connects the millions of data points and allows data to be stored and analysed at a central command centre
- Smart, utility-specific data analytics to harness the power of the data collected and transform data into actionable information for the utility’s business functions.
It is imperative that the smart analytics utilities deploy can support varied and evolving data sets and provide a scalable platform that can enable new artificial intelligence (AI) functionality to identify to issues and instigate the most appropriate course of action.
Top three types of non-revenue water loss
Non-revenue water is water that has been pumped from a source, but then ‘lost’ before it reaches the end-customer. Such losses can be ‘real’ losses (through leaks, sometimes also referred to as physical losses), or ‘apparent’ losses (e.g. via theft or metering inaccuracies). NRW is quantified as the volume of water ‘lost’ as a share of net water produced, but can also sometimes be expressed as the volume of water ‘lost’ per km of water distribution network per day.
Unbilled authorised consumption
Unbilled authorised consumption is the legitimate use of water that is not billed. Typically, this may be water used, for example, by the fire brigade or local authorities for legitimate purposes. These uses are still monitored by utilities to ensure they are fully attributable, even if the end-user is not billed.
Concurrently, unauthorised use of water like illegal connections equates to meter tampering and puts a strain on natural resources without generating any revenue for the utility.
Apparent losses refers to water that is consumed but not properly measured, accounted or paid for. These losses are also called commercial losses, and include all types of inaccuracies associated with customer metering as well as data handling errors, plus unauthorised consumption. Such losses cost utilities revenue and distort data on customer consumption patterns.
Natural mechanical degradation of meters, in particular, can lead to significant underreporting of real consumption, sometimes as much as 30 – 40% less than actual use. One solution to this problem is the greater use of non-mechanical meters, such as those that use ultrasonic and electromagnetic measurement techniques. Whilst these can still degrade over time, they are much more reliable and consistent over the entire 20-year lifetime of the meter.
Real losses are the physical losses of water from the distribution system, including leakage and storage overflows. Essentially, it is the volume of water lost through all types of leaks, breaks and overflows on mains, service reservoirs and service connections. Such losses inflate the water utility’s production costs and stress water resources since they represent water that is extracted and treated, yet never reaches beneficial use.
The most effective way to drive down real losses is to use a combination of methods – acoustic, pressure transient monitoring and accurate meter measurement of water into an area minus the total measured consumption.
Challenges in reducing high non-revenue water loss
There are a number of technical challenges utilities face when trying to reduce NRW – including too few meters in the network, inadequate meter management, illegal connections and poor programmes for ensuring continuing governance. The good news is that these have largely been resolved and solutions are available in the market. Costs are also reducing and regulatory bodies are becoming more assertive in their quest to reduce both NRW and energy consumption in the network. In addition, AI continues to rapidly develop and push the boundaries to help dynamically manage the network and prioritise maintenance tasks to drive down NRW levels and improve efficiency.
The benefits of implementing a smart network
A smart water network enables utilities to make decisions based on in-depth data collected using next generation analytics. By decreasing the amount of water leaked, smart water networks can reduce the amount of money spent on producing/purchasing water, as well as the consumption of energy required to pump and treat water for distribution.
Both large and small utilities can benefit from trialling a smart network regardless of the access they have to investment funds, as tailored business models can be made dependent on the technology supplier.
In some instances, smaller utilities can also be more agile in implementing a smart water network than a larger utility because they are likely to experience fewer constraints when changing the organisation’s existing methods and practices.
The value of real-time analytics
With advanced water network analytics and multiple connected sensors, utilities can get the full value of the investment in a complete smart water solution and achieve huge operational savings by automatically verifying all leak alarms, as well as eliminating false leak alarms.
Early leak detection and repair also lowers the potential for expensive property damage. Knowing about slow leaks lets the utility plan repairs; water outages can be scheduled, which improves public perception of the utility’s capabilities, and smart water analytics can predict locations of future bursts – allowing utilities to plan for pipe replacement to mitigate those risks.
By combining high-rate pressure sensing with smart analytics, utilities can identify sections of the network most at risk and gain critical insights which can be used to target hotspots for condition assessment instead of spending money in areas where it is not needed. Such methods reduce risk and enable better prioritisation and planning of resources, delivering cost savings and other benefits, such as improved warnings and information to customers prior to any work being undertaken.
The time for a water utility to develop and implement a smart water network strategy has truly arrived. While modern water networks are complex control systems with many interacting elements, a smart water strategy will bring exceptional operational and asset efficiency for utilities. Some utilities have seen at least a 50 percent reduction in capital and operating costs with large scale leak detection. Reductions of 6 to 8 hours in response time for service calls are also not uncommon, following the implementation of a smart water platform.
To be successful with this holistic approach to active water loss solutions however, utilities must consider both the technology and human factors. The nature of compiling data from multiple sources and the value of the information that can result from this approach affects multiple departments. It is therefore important that utilities partner with the smart water technology provider throughout the entire process, from preliminary planning through project completion and training, whilst including all utility departments that may be impacted.