Smart Water Network Innovations: Getting Ahead of the Curve – Part 3

In our continuing series on an industry moving from older AMR technology to a smart water network, our last post wound up with the concept that no new technology will make the cut that doesn’t provide functionality to enable end users to become water agencies’ partners in managing usage and enabling conservation.

Water customers aren’t the only ones, though, who would benefit from such technology. Municipal utilities, water authorities, and agencies looking for significant, long-term cost efficiencies can leverage ioT by replacing aging Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) hardware with Advanced Metering Infrastructure/Internet of Things (AMioT) solutions. These are innovative metering technology that interfaces with new local Edge Networks, remotely reporting back to the water authority and empowering the customer like never before.

What Are Edge Networks, and Why Should We Care?

Edge Networks are those whose communications take place on the ground, without having to engage the Internet—a cloudless solution. More savings could be realized if that Edge Network consists of utility-owned, Bluetooth-powered communication lines that gather local signals before bouncing them over to the telecom-owned RF or cellular grid. Keeping the signal off such proprietary infrastructure until absolutely necessary would not only speed up real-time data transmission, it would drastically reduce expensive telecom provider bandwidth usage.

It’s important to mention that an “edge-capable” smart meter could communicate directly with edge-capable appliances. For example, an edge-capable irrigation controller uses the smart meter as a sensor, to validate proper irrigation.

This unique technology would create a path for device providers to develop “smart water” home appliances. The water meter—once a one-trick pony—could then become a critical sensor that enables edge machine-to-machine communications, much like Nest consumer level technology.

Smart water networks could also facilitate artificial intelligence (AI)-driven, 24/7 guardians against losses due to unplanned, unauthorized, non-revenue water loss. Increasingly, agencies are realizing this is no small issue, and it’s only getting more important.

Let’s take a look at this growing problem in municipal water systems:

Sobering Statistics About Leakage Loss

According to a 2018 study by Utah State University that surveyed nearly 200,000 miles of water pipelines in more than 300 municipalities in the United States and Canada, serving more than 14 percent of the two countries’ total population:

  • Between 2012 and 2018, overall water main break rates increased by 27 percent, from 11.0 to 14.0 breaks/100 miles/year.
  • More concerning is that breakage rates of cast iron and asbestos cement pipe—which make up 41 percent of the installed water mains in the U.S. and Canada—have increased by more than 40 percent over those six years.
  • 82 percent of cast iron pipes are more than 50 years old, and experiencing a 46 percent increase in break rates.
  • Smaller utilities have two times more main breaks than large utilities.
  • Nationwide, one mile of installed water main serves 308 people.
  • The average age of failing water mains is approximately 50 years.
  • Over 16 percent of North America’s underground water infrastructure is past its design service life.
  • Of more than 200 utilities reporting water loss value, estimated average water loss to leakage is 10 percent, but some areas are reaching averages as high as 20-30 percent (including authorized losses).

It’s clear that non-revenue water is taking a serious bite out of operating budgets, both through leakage loss and the costs of infrastructure repair and replacement. But is Smart City technology really the solution?

It appears so. That previously mentioned IDC report noted that around the world, smart city technology spending reached $80 billion in 2016, expected to grow to $135 billion by 2021. With increased urbanization, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which this trend will not continue for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, those with control over the purse strings recognize the economies of scale and efficiencies to be achieved through bundling together the digitization of many municipal functions. That’s exactly what Smart City technology makes possible.

Due Diligence, Smart Choices

Having established Smart City technology as the direction for future development, the next logical question for utility managers to consider would be which specific technologies to embrace. The right choices now will see savvy water authorities reaping the benefits of staying ahead of the curve, with technologies poised for extensibility and scalability. Those who skimp on due diligence in discovering the right solutions will find themselves saddled with an installed base of quickly outmoded, proprietary equipment and distribution components.

Aside from primary water-related functions, informed technology specifiers will understand the importance of choosing an AMIoT (not just limited AMI) water monitoring and reporting system that:

  1. integrates smoothly with both utility enterprise systems and wider Smart City systems
  2. is designed to grow with the water distribution system itself
  3. supports diverse, ubiquitous and user-friendly monitoring and control interfaces
  4. is backed by responsive technical support, from installation to deployment to troubleshooting

No More Proprietary System Limitations

A significant bonus would be a system that can easily piggyback on existing infrastructure. This would save huge amounts of time and money, compared to others that require old equipment removal. If the new system is modular, it can be installed on an as-needed basis to replace old AMR and manual-read meter registers. This way, managers can decide whether it’s more efficient and cost-effective to retrofit entire blocks at a time, or just on an individual basis.

Equally as important to the agility of the physical equipment, new IoT systems should generate data that doesn’t simply replace that from existing systems, but surpasses it in richness and usability. Imagine, for instance, having 24/7 real-time data on water line leaks, without having to wait for seasonal deployment of pipe inspection and repair crews; completely possible with smart metering. Such components would continue to be a vital part of a healthy, robust water distribution and monitoring system, far into the future.

Of course, any serious candidate for such deployments must be designed to the highest standards of security. Though managers will want an open architecture system to allow for growth and extensibility, that openness must be closely guarded against external cyber-invasion, hacking and malware.

Next post, we’ll introduce one emerging solution that hits all the salient points we’ve already discussed.