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Smartening up: Is UK water metering ready for a smart revolution?

Smart metering shows signs it can bring significant improvements on water consumption, leakage and more. But what will it take to tempt companies outside water-stressed areas to get on board?

METERING FACTS

• While standard meters can reduce average water consumption by 15 per cent, the extra information provided by smart meters means they can reduce consumption even further, by 17 per cent on average, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.

• Around 50 per cent of homes in England are currently metered and this is expected to reach around 80 per cent by 2050, saving around 400 Ml/day. Nearly all homes are expected to be metered by around 2070 (NIC report)

• Southern Water has the highest rate of metering in the UK (88 per cent) following a large-scale compulsory roll-out in the last five years. However most of these are automated meter read (AMR) meters, which are read periodically from the street outside a house, rather than smart meters where data is updated constantly

• Thames Water has rolled out 240,000 smart meters made by Sensus (pictured below), which produce hourly data, since 2016. It aims to meter 75 per cent of household properties in London and 90 per cent in the Thames Valley by 2030

• Anglian Water has installed 6,000 smart meters in Newmarket as part of its Innovation Shop Window initiative. Following installation, it saw an 8 per cent drop in water consumption over 12 months. It has also identified 500 customer leaks as a result of the meters. Half of these were leaking toilets

It is still relatively early days, but the indications are that smart metering can deliver definite results in the sector. On water efficiency, metering of any sort appears to represent a straightforward path to cutting per capita consumption (PCC), and smart metering has shown evidence it can enhance those benefits.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the body set up to make recommendations to government about the country’s long-term infrastructure needs, issued a report in April in which it recommended that Defra enable all companies – including those outside water-stressed areas – to implement compulsory metering by the 2030s. It also recommended that all water companies be required to consider the systematic roll-out of smart meters.

For many companies, though, there are still plenty of questions that must be resolved before there is a clear case for universal implementation. If there is no pressing need to conserve water, metering of any type – and particularly smart meters – will be weighed against cost, and any decision to adopt a new technology prompts concerns about when that technology might become outdated or even obsolete.

With the smart meters in use in the UK now, which communicate using radio frequency (RF) technology, companies can gain hourly readings, and that could soon be cut to 15 minutes. That brings a host of benefits: you can gauge the times of heaviest use, provide feedback to those with excessive consumption levels with the incentive of reducing bills, and leakage becomes eminently detectable. Also, while the NIC’s report cited research showing that even standard meters reduce average consumption by 15 per cent, that rises to 17 per cent for smart meters, and trials have shown particularly strong advantages in any instance where the customer actively engaged with their meter data.

However, water companies using smart meters in the UK have been having to wait until the following day before the data can be accessed – although it was announced this week that Anglian Water is trialling a solution to that problem with the Sensus FlexNet two-way communication fixed network solution across Arqiva’s dedicated network.

Simon Murray, who once chaired Water UK’s smart metering network as well as sitting on the now-defunct smart metering advisory group for Ofwat, is currently working on software and app development in relation to metering in his role as water solutions manager at Wheatley. He is a long-standing advocate for metering but argues that the term ‘smart meter’ is a misnomer at this stage.

“Until you get real-time or at least semi-real-time data, it’s never really going to be smart metering,” Murray says. “The technologies available today are simply smarter.”

THE TECHNOLOGY

While companies in the most water-stressed areas have a persuasive case to pay out for the current advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) devices, others may prefer to see how the technology evolves before committing their resources.

Globally, the Internet of Things (IoT) – and particularly the development of smart cities, in which radio and communications infrastructure is installed across an area to collect an array of data – is paving the way for improvements. Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei has already developed a system using narrowband (NB)-IoT, a low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) radio technology. According to the GSM Association (Global System for Mobile Communications), NB-IoT’s advantages include low power consumption – with devices operating for up to 10 years on a single charging cycle – as well as low cost at the device end, secure connectivity and superior operation in bad coverage areas.

Huawei’s NB-IoT ‘Smart Water Solution’ relies on inherited networks, upgraded from the existing 2G, 3G and 4G cellular base stations provided by operators. In Shenzhen, Huawei worked with Shenzhen Water, China Telecom and Ningbo Water Meter Co. to launch the world’s first commercial NB-IoT-based smart meter reading project in March 2017, with further projects taking place in Yingtan and Fuzhou.

“Being an innovative solution collecting hydrological data related to the water supply and drainage systems in real-time, enabling water-level monitoring of rivers, channels, major water gates and enterprise sewage outlets, this solution helps water utilities make important decisions based on the data collected,” a Huawei spokesperson tells WWT.

The Smart Water Solution can be upgraded to 5G, and the spokesperson says that this means the system “is indeed future-proof”, adding: “Already today, this existing standard provides for a broad range of applications associated with the Internet of Things. As the deployment of 5G gathers momentum and the cyclical replacement of water meters continues, the possible spectre of applications designed to optimise water management will enlarge even further.”

Other LPWAN technologies, notably LoRa and Sigfox, can also help deliver next-level smart metering, despite concerns that – as unlicensed spectrum solutions – they are vulnerable to interference, while they also operate outside existing cellular infrastructure.

The security of water metering data is a growing priority for utilities, especially in the light of new GDPR regulations.

THE POTENTIAL

American business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan recently issued an analysis on the global smart meter market that predicated total installations will grow from 13.8 million units in 2017 to 82.1 million units by 2026, representing a major growth opportunity for IoT-enabled meters.

Frost & Sullivan’s senior research analyst for energy and environment, Paul Hudson, says advanced water utilities around the world are now implementing smart water meter projects but – for now at least – cost remains one drawback for NB-IoT.

“It operates in a licensed bandwidth and hence the usage will incur a cost in comparison to other non-cellular LPWAN technologies like LoRa or SigFox, but the rapid rise in penetration of NB-IoT and its seamless connectivity alongside regular 3G networks is expected to bring down cost as the number of devices connected through NB-IoT increases,” Hudson says.

Elsewhere in the world, utilities that have been early adopters of NB-IoT include Australia’s South East Water and Spain’s Aguas de Valencia; both have worked with Huawei alongside network provider Vodafone to develop the necessary network infrastructure and capabilities. To meet SEW’s requirements, Huawei brought in Chinese device partners Huizhong and Sanchuan to develop its meters, which feature different sensors that measure flow, temperature, pressure and vibration. Both companies have seen positive results.

However, Hudson still expects the various technologies to be battling it out in the smart metering space for some time, and says newer markets like China, India and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf “could be potential growth centres of LoRa”.

He adds: “Every LPWAN technology has unique capabilities in terms data speed, range and connectivity. End-users adopt these technologies based on their requirements, so at least for the next five years they would co-exist.

“But in the future, with the implementation of 5G networks, newer technologies capable of carrying a comparatively large amount of data coupled with better real-time access could disrupt existing LPWAN technologies. It could also be impacted by better battery technologies.”

Murray, who has also worked on metering for Veolia, Affinity Water and Homerider, thinks the UK water companies would be tempted by the new technologies if the price is right but says – outside the water-stressed areas – they are biding their time.

“For water in the UK there’s no mandate to meter, let alone smart meter, and this has driven the situation where there is no common standard for this smart metering technology, so you have competing protocols and radio technologies,” he says. “The industry’s in that kind of quagmire of: ‘Is it Betamax or VHS?’ Which do they back? They want something that’s interoperable, they want something that’s long-lasting – 15 years’ life, similar to the life of a mechanical meter – and they want it future-proofed.”

Hudson says the decision to back any particular technology at this stage might be considered a risk but it depends on the long-term objectives of the water company in question, with leak detection, asset management and real-time usage notification all achievable using the currently available technologies.

“The degree of change of technology in the IoT-metering space is high and therefore factors like cost, number of connections and integration play a vital role,” he adds.

It remains to be seen when the bulk of the UK water companies will be persuaded the time is right to adopt smart meters. Southern Water opted for automated meter reading (AMR) across its region between 2010 and 2015 when those devices – which can be read using drive-by technology – were the most advanced available but, even though there are now technologically superior options, it has reaped the benefits of that decision: with 88 per cent of its customer base now metered, there has been a 16 per cent reduction in water use.

Murray is confident that universal metering remains a matter of when not if, and Wheatley is already speaking to water companies about its vision to see meter data used for machine learning, which could provide predictions that avert problems before they happen.

“Meters used to be a cash register – it was a means of capturing consumption information every six months for a domestic property and sending a bill,” he says.

“They could be a far more valuable asset, collecting more frequent data and producing more insight in terms of data. What’s recorded and measured can be far more than just water consumption – they could measure ambient temperature and pressure. Having that sort of information and granularity, they could use more AI and machine-learning technology to really predict what’s going to happen, and that’s going to take the water industry into a new area. It could change everything completely.”

WATER COMPANY VIEW

Stephanie Baker, metering manager, Thames Water

“The Thames Water area is classified as seriously water-stressed, and this will only increase as the population we serve grows – by 2045, we forecast that we will be serving another 2 million people. At the same time, the amount of water that we can take from rivers and underground sources is reducing, due to changes in the climate and the need to protect the environment.

“As a result, we predict that there will be a shortfall between the amount of water available and the amount of water we need equivalent to the water needed by over 2 million people by 2045 unless we take action.

“In 2014, the case for smart metering was approved through our water resources management plan and, after an initial trial, we commenced our rollout in January 2016. Since then we have installed over 240,000 smart meters, which are firing back over 5.8 million hourly meter reads per day. To put that into perspective, that is more meter reads in one day than we used to get in a year from our historical meter base of over 2 million meters.

“The value lies in the data and how this can help us manage our network. We’re analysing hourly meter read data to quickly identify where there is water continuously flowing through a customer’s meter for a sustained period. This is a good sign that there is a leak either on the customer’s supply pipe or within the home such as a dripping tap or a leaking loo.

“Now we can accurately identify this, quantify the size of the leak and potential bill impact, we can proactively engage our customers about getting that leak fixed, or taking up our free customer-side leak repair offering.

“We have already saved almost 11 million litres of water per day by fixing customer-side leaks identified using smart meter data, and that’s the amount of water needed by 77,000 people. This is where our investment in smart technology is paying back.

“Still, we’re only really at the beginning of our journey to understanding just how valuable the data can be. We’re developing a much clearer picture of the balance between customer usage, leakage on our network and leakage on our customer’s pipes. This simply wasn’t possible before, with only around a third of our customers metered, and reads being collected twice annually.

“Going forward, we will be looking at how we use meter data to mitigate and manage the impact of events on our network and, additionally, how we can combine meter data with the many million data points we already collect to develop the insight we need to take action where it matters most. We’re at the early days in terms of harnessing that and I think there’s a lot more we can do in terms of influencing behaviour and using that data to help us mitigate and manage events, such as picking up low-level main-side leakage in an area before it becomes a major event and even managing pressure in the most efficient and economical way.

“Traditionally the industry has considered that customers with a water meter use between 10 and 15 per cent less water than an unmetered customer. With smart meters, we hope to exceed this by changing the way we interact with our customers and using regular and real-time data, year-round, to help them to save water, energy and money in their homes. In the future, we’d like to move to being able to provide people with usage alerts when their water use behaviour changes, or they reach a daily maximum they can select as well.

“We have already received interest from around the globe about our smart metering programme, and as technology evolves and utilities embrace the Internet of Things, I can only expect that in the future we will see almost all water companies harnessing the value of smart meter data to engage their customers, manage demand, and control their network.”

This article first appeared in the June issue of WWT

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