Interest in smart water systems is rising related to smart cities for several reasons. Utility administrators are increasingly focused on clean water as a critical element of public health heightened by the global pandemic. In addition, bottom line considerations are a top priority.

Implementing smart water systems can deliver data to support revenue capture across the entire watershed cycle from operational efficiencies, system cost reductions, risk mitigations, customer service, enhanced sustainability and asset optimization.  The relatively steady revenue stream from public utilities can often be used to fund smart city applications across other city departments.

To explore these concepts, we hosted an online discussion featuring an industry expert from Sensus and city leaders from across the United States. The frank conversation that followed, revealed valuable insight for those considering a future upgrade to their smart water systems.

The following is a summary of the conversation that details some of the many reasons that maintaining and protecting critical infrastructure is paramount to the city’s operations, finances and their overall smart city initiatives. 

Proving the Benefits of an Intelligent System 

While many utilities have made strides in Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), advancing to a holistic intelligence system delivers a value proposition that goes far beyond traditional solutions.

One participant stated, “There’s no limit on the data that can be collected and utilized. That translates into bigger dollars for the city and better smart infrastructure for smarter cities.” To really get the power out of a system, you need to expand beyond just AMI and think about how to integrate data collection and management can deliver new value flow. 

    At the base level of any smart city initiative, adding intelligence helps to better track, measure and monitor assets. Municipal water and wastewater systems are sizable investments and so optimizing performance falls under the category of good stewardship. 

    Having the right data supports operations so that planning and engineering staff can better utilize those systems. This level of insight can be crucial to ensure that assets are not over designed or under designed.  One platform enables managers to see everything that is going on across the entire distribution system (i.e. pressure monitoring). 

    Data across the entire water management system (from distribution to treatment) can be applied to model supply demand curves. This can be helpful in daily operations as well as emergency response. This type of scenario planning supports better performance, saves operational costs and minimizes risks. 

    Getting information faster, limits exposure to negative outcomes. By adding more intelligence, managers and line staff can be more proactive and limit the consequential damages and operational upsets that cause public disruption

    Water quality is paramount to public health. This is even more heightened in a global pandemic where detecting COVID outbreaks in water supplies can be an important aspect of slowing viral spread. 

    Customers will always expect better service. They want to be able to track usage and experience more accuracy during billing cycles similar to their experience with an electric utility.

    In addition, having the right data from an intelligent system can support front line customer service staff with the timely information they need to deliver on increasing customer expectations. 

    Minimizing water loss comes through leak detection and better system optimization as well as provide information to customers so they can self monitor and manage their usage.

An ideal example of how to demonstrate this multi-level value proposition is in leak detection. In the scenarios, an intelligent system can identify an area with high likelihood of a main break before it happens based on stress factors in the pipe, water flow history and other factors.

Knowing where the main break could be directs resources appropriately. If unexpected breaks do occur, knowing exactly where the fracture is means that the issue can be addressed immediately instead of having to wait for a customer to call in and report. 

Advice on Implementation

Because of the multiple pathways to realizing return on investment, roundtable members needed very little convincing of the merits of an intelligent water system. The conversation quickly turned to next steps and shared perspective from those who are deeper into implementation. 

When considering a shift to an intelligence system, it pays to be slow and steady. Doing so provides an opportunity to capture value at each step and pursue an integrated approach that goes far beyond just water meter upgrades.

If a full network management system is planned properly, the savings realized can not only help pay for the next step, you can also bring staff along who may need extra time for training on how best to digest and effectively use data. Data has to be managed and integrated to really be able to harness its power for customer service or other purposes. 

Every community is different and therefore the desired outcomes will range greatly depending on the size of the utility and the geographical elements. While some municipalities may focus on implementing data insights to reduce consumption and increase water efficiency, some other cities may prioritize optimizing operations or infrastructure.

The investment should be driven by clearly articulated goals.  

One attendee stated, “Technology is a journey not a destination.” There will be a continuous improvement of operations along the lifetime of a system so it is important to make sure it is adaptable and flexible.

No matter if it is a small, medium or large utility, the commitment is for the long term and so it pays to do the due diligence and make the right decision.

“Make sure that your utility intelligence includes all aspects because you can tug too hard in one direction and break the spider web and cause a huge problem.” This statement by an attendee speaks toward the interdependence of water systems.

Using the leak detection scenario, once the main is fixed, other aspects are impacted such as water age, the water distribution pattern, etc. Viewing hydraulics and water quality together can result in greater success than viewing them in isolation. 

As the adage goes, a smart city is more about how people implement technology than the technology itself.

“It’s worth the time on the front end to assemble a good team including a national consultant who has intelligent system conversion experience, a good major supplier that provides accurate equipment, a cellular communication company and an installation team that can do work in the field. But then once you get all of that done, you’ve got to have a team within the utility who are all bought in, who are willing to cooperate and make it work. Spending time on the front end to lay out the process will pay off in spades as the project goes forward.”

The appropriate implementation of a smart water system can result in massive insights, savings and benefit. The best insights result from the right people having the right data at the right time across the full spectrum of the entire system.

Those who are deliberately integrating these systems have a consistent tone perfectly articulated by one of the attendees, “The future is pretty unlimited for us. The question for every utility is how far do they want to push?”