The rise of smart water

It’s a multi-billion-dollar (per annum) market, explains Dr Mikael Khan, business development manager with consultancy firm Aqua Enviro.

The emergence of smart sensors coupled with rapid advances in communications infrastructure is revolutionising almost every aspect of our daily lives. While the water sector has not been the fastest to adopt and deploy smart solutions, it is rapidly catching up. Better late than never! The early adopters will undoubtedly lead the way, grabbing the market as they solve problems and accumulate experience.

Enabling this revolution is a coming-together of technological advances in discrete sectors: The emergence of cost-effective IoT-enabled smart sensors and meters (AMR and AMI devices), improvements in battery life and less power-hungry instrumentation, and the growth of communications networks like low power wide area network technologies such as 169 MHz LPWAN systems.

Water has often been neglected and undervalued, yet life as we know it would not exist without it. The Earth is a closed ecosystem dependent upon this finite resource, which will have to sustain generations to come. Nature has been recycling it for millennia.

With a burgeoning human population, the lightning pace of industrialization, and now climate change, the stress on freshwater water availability has never been so great. Having said that, there is light at the end of the tunnel and one form of that is smart solutions for the water industry.

With water scarcity issues mounting by the minute and pressure from regulators, water utilities around the world are beginning to turn to smart solutions and AI platforms to help them overcome these challenges. The four key areas for the deployment of smart technologies are:

a. Smart water metering
b. Smart water leakage detection
c. Smart water quality
d. Smart distribution networks

The first two items: smart metering and leak detection, are more about building awareness of what’s happening, and supporting access to live to monitor water consumption and wastage. Water loss due to leakage (non-revenue water) can be as high as 45% in some countries, which establishes the scale of the problem but also the opportunity. The awareness the technology provides will initiate a step-change in our attitude and habits when it comes to water consumption and conservation as users. The list of benefits of smart infrastructure goes on and I have attempted to summarize just a few as follows:

a. Data from smart meters can be used to understand water usage patterns and detect leaks at the consumer end, thus detecting leaks before they cause major flooding and structural damage. The latter in turn would help bring down insurance costs and claims.

b. It will provide more accurate billing and transparency by overcoming human error and any potential legal difficulties.

c. It could enable the introduction of bespoke water charges that depend on the usage in peak vs off-peak hours. This would also help flatten the demand curve on the network, enhancing network resilience while providing consumers more cost-effective billing options.

d. Reducing or eliminating the need for vans or transport for manual meter readers. Reduced labour costs and HSE incidents.

e. Smart sensors in the water distribution networks could help detect leakages in the network, helping utilities overcome water scarcity issues and proactively address minor leaks before they become a major incident with extensive repair bills.

f. Fixed speed pumps are one of the highest energy consumption elements of water networks. Using data to manage smart pumping stations, with live and variable control on pumps, reacting to network demand, would significantly reduce energy costs, increase asset life and reduce the impact on the environment.

g. Use of AI platforms and data analytics to lead proactive, preventative maintenance of all water infrastructure assets.

h. Real-time water quality monitoring, to continuously assess water health and build consumer confidence.

The deployment landscape in developed nations is, however, somewhat different to that in the developing world. With the latter, we are seeing rapid population growth and urbanization, including the emergence of new cities and the expansion of existing ones. The UN predicts that almost 70% of the world’s population will inhabit cities by 2050. Against this backdrop of rapid urbanization, new infrastructure is being developed and there is an opportunity to install smart water technologies, creating a new benchmark.

The opportunity in developed nations represents a slightly different challenge which comes from existing infrastructure showing signs of ageing. It will require technologies that can help proactively maintain or upgrade the same. While this sets a requirement for the industry, the landscape for the delivery of end-to-end smart solutions is foggy at best. Providing complete end-to-end solutions will require the forging of robust collaborations and partnerships across hardware, software, project management, delivery and service partners, and bringing together expertise and know-how developed in discrete silos.
The opportunity is certainly here now, with a number of estimates suggesting that the smart water market is expected to reach $30 billion pa. over the next 5 years.

At the end of the day, it is all about getting cleverer and safer with water usage and its management, preserving this precious gift of nature, and ensuring the availability of hygienic water for all.