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Becoming water smart

The latest control and instrumentation technology makes real-time management of networks very possible, argues Mike Jones, lead consultant, energy, utilities, communications & services, of Infosys

Flooding in York: natural systems such as rivers, lakes and the sea need to be managedFlooding in York: natural systems such as rivers, lakes and the sea need to be managed

‘Smart grid’ is a terminology now well understood in the energy market, and there have been a number of articles on creating a ‘water smart grid’. Many of the ideas being discussed focus on transferring smart grid technology from the energy sector; but there are a few key differences that need to be considered.

Firstly the water industry not only supplies a product, potable water, it also collects and manages sewage and ensures water is stored. Therefore daily peaks and troughs in usage are far less important than in the energy market.

Secondly, daily peaks and troughs in wastewater flows can have major impacts. Thirdly, water networks are seldom in grid arrangements, with each area, albeit sometimes very large, being discreet from other zones.

Fourthly, network failures such as leaks and blockages can go unnoticed for some time. However, one of the most important factors to consider is that the water sector also includes natural systems – river, lakes and sea – which need to be understood and managed.


The most transferable energy market technology that could benefit the water industry is smart metering. However, certain aspects do not appear to add value, such as two-way communications, as there is limited benefit in interfacing with water-using devices.

This is because those ‘appliances’ which have highest usage, such as toilets, are controlled by human factors, and cannot be switched off in peak hours. Such extra functionality also impacts meter life. Value is however added by:

  • More frequent meter reads, potentially in real-time, with customer displays via proprietary units or PC/smartphone
  • Reduced meter reading costs
  • Fault alerts, for example, leakage
  • Accurate and timely bills

Greater understanding by the customer of the impact of their behaviours on water usage is a key value-add and customer perceptions can be further enhanced by an effective self-service portal. These benefits, coupled with suitable MDM/CRM software at the supplying company, can lead to an overall smarter customer experience.

A water industry smart grid can, however, be far more than just smart metering. Control of networks varies around the world, typically with reasonable real-time knowledge and control of water supply networks, but very limited in sewerage.

However, with the latest control and instrumentation technology, coupled with suitable software, real-time management of networks is very possible, and there are a number of very good real-life examples – namely water source mixing in Paris, France, and Cardiff’s sewerage control strategy. Such tools also allow for more proactive management of networks, hence less operational cost and risk, but do not need to involve much capital cost if effective use is made of existing instrumentation.

Performance management

When these systems are coupled to performance management software, a smart grid can both efficiently manage risk and enable beneficial comparisons of sites, leading to significant savings and service improvements. But can we also use a smart grid to manage the whole water cycle?

This could be possible if we start to increase understanding of our impact on the natural water cycle by the use of effective strategies, such as integrated water management (IWM). Used in its full form, which is generally not the case in the UK, IWM considers all aspects of the natural water cycle – rainfall, run-off, storage, evaporation, and so on – and all human interfaces – abstraction, confinement, impervious areas, pollution, et cetera. Using such assessments it is possible to understand all potential impacts.

Obviously, where negative impacts could be managed by changes at source, such as limiting abstraction by water saving measures, removing impervious areas, and preventing pollution at source, these interventions should be enacted. However, in many cases, such large-scale changes would not be possible without major social disruption. Here, smart grid methodologies could be used to:

  • Measure and monitor potential impacts, such as peak storms and low water table
  • Predict the effects of impacts through models using artificial intelligence
  • Control impacts through automation, such as gates, valves, and set up proactive warning systems linked to GIS and automated messaging

Some of the above measures are already being used, such as the flood warning and mitigation systems in many countries. These systems however tend to work in isolation, and links between systems, such as the impact of river flooding on sewer networks, are seldom managed directly, relying instead on local liaison techniques.

There is therefore a great opportunity to interface and enhance systems across the water sector to enable a complete water smart grid. Such benefits will however require the use of leading edge solutions in the technology, engineering and IT areas, as well as substantial organisational changes. It is unlikely that any one company will be able to offer all of these solutions, thus effective working partnerships will need to be established.

Likewise water utilities, regulators, government bodies and agencies, companies, famers and the public will need to be engaged in a substantial change process in order for the full benefits of a smart grid to be realised.

Comprehensive water smart grids are already possible, and will increasingly become more effective as technology improves, but require a step change in attitudes, especially in regard of organisations working together.

Topic: Data, IT & Communications
Tags: leaks , smart meters , wastewater , Communications


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