As upward pressure on public agency services costs — cities, water agencies, etc. — continues to increase, utilities must get smarter. Progressive leaders are looking for forward-thinking smart city/smart agency initiatives. These include scalable communications networks with open architecture that can grow with their communities.

Water management is no exception. Solutions that employ such smart city networks, while helping develop and leverage partnerships between water suppliers and their customers, will reap the most benefit now and into the future. One such solution has pioneered several innovative features that make it deserving of a closer look.

Two Ways Are Better Than One

“Smart communications grids” are those that leverage digital technology to improve infrastructure, asset management, and environmental, financial, and social aspects of urban life. Included in this category are open, “smart” water networks — the wave of the future. The innovations forming this wave are already making a splash.

According to TechRepublic’s Smart Cities Cheat Sheet, “The International Data Corporation (IDC) defines smart city development as the use of smart initiatives combined to leverage technology investments across an entire city, with common platforms increasing efficiency, data being shared across systems, and IT investments tied to smart missions.”

Certainly, water system management is one of those areas ripe — if not overdue — for true smart initiatives. When automatic meter reading (AMR) technology debuted in the mid-1980s and rapidly proliferated through the 1990s, it was a boon for utilities and water management agencies. But that’s yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s challenges.

Now, the world is becoming more urban. Sixty percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by mid-century. It’s time the one-way benefit of AMR is replaced by modern technology that connects, engages, and empowers both water providers and end users. Today’s fast-moving agencies require a revolutionary meter monitoring/valve control solution that benefits both utilities and their customers.

Specialize, Integrate, Optimize

Part of such a system would include the recognition that — with rapid and ever-changing cyber technologies — agencies are not in the position to own and maintain the kind of large, robust communications networks needed to power smart cities. They need to instead work with vendors who, while fully understanding the technologies they will need to work in concert with, specialize in their area of expertise and leave the rest to experts in their respective fields.

As cited in the Water Online article Smart Water Networks And The Choices Ahead, “Historically, a water utility would select a vendor to provide both the metering technology and the communication network infrastructure. While this approach had the benefit of a single point of contact responsible for delivery of an entire system, it didn’t take into account all lifetime cost-of-ownership factors, or the possible redundancy that was created due to overlapping communication systems within a single municipality or geographic region.”

Such oversights are no longer sustainable. Cities that are truly smart will retain or create their independence from proprietary networks that reduce their agility in staying ahead of the curve. They must be able to anticipate and implement best-in-class communications capabilities and the best adjunct solutions that will use those networks.

Water management systems are no exception.

A Sparkling Vision Of The Future

Ideally, a smart water network would provide affordable, easily deployed hardware that harnesses the power and immediacy of third-party, cutting-edge telecommunications. This would enable access to infrastructure and wireless capabilities that may already be part of the grid or are slated for future installation.

Due diligence concerning available options is critical to making a sound investment in an agency’s future. Without it, an agency intent on positioning itself well for future growth could instead find itself trapped in a system of proprietary technologies that only perform well together, but not in concert with others outside their ecosystem.

The ideal smart water network would not only perform remote meter reading, but also allow utilities and their customers access to real-time data on water usage, potential leaks, and other actionable information. A bonus would be the ability of the customer to remotely close a valve, shutting down suspected leaks until they can be assessed or — in the case of a major break — mitigating loss until permanent repairs can be made. In addition, it would provide the handling of other Internet of Things (IoT) applications over the same network, to extend levels and capabilities of system management.

All these robust features would provide cost savings to providers by eliminating the need for multiple data-handling systems, drive-by or touch meter reading, most search-and-assess field trips, and a host of other functions now handled by direct and costly labor deployment. Ultimately, such a network would create an important and necessary partnership between providers and customers in meeting tomorrow’s ever-growing demand for water conservation.

Today’s Customers Demand More

With more computing power in their pockets than the first Apollo moon landing’s guidance system had, modern Americans have come to expect immediate, two-way communication with product and service providers.

American consumers are not shy about using social media and the internet to express unhappiness with dashed expectations or to get help with needed information. They are also beginning to understand that cyber-communication technology can also help them proactively connect with commodity service providers, previously difficult or impossible to reach.

Millennials and every generation to follow will soon be demanding more information about — and control over — their potable water usage.

IoT now powers everything from mobile banking to telecommuting. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced all generations to become conversant with cyber-technologies if they want to stay in touch. These newly tech-savvy citizens will soon start wondering aloud why they must still put up with being ambushed by unexpected bills for massive usage spikes spurred by leaks that were completely unknown to them and/or out of their control.

They will be expecting utilities to implement their on-demand access to data that can help them anticipate and even control their usage, and to provide early warning of leaks before they become costly and damaging. Despite increasing talk about conservation, end users generally remain ill-equipped to participate in the process.