Water utilities are tasked with enormous responsibilities in the face of ongoing challenges: demographic changes, industrialization, rising energy costs and extreme weather. These challenges must be addressed amid complex business conditions, such as aging infrastructure, budget constraints, rate pressures and ever-changing regulations. On top of it all, today’s consumers demand greater transparency into utility operations and control of their own consumption habits.
To accomplish their critical tasks, successful water utilities demonstrate these qualities:
A resilient water utility can react to and recover from damaging, and often, unanticipated events like water main breaks, droughts and major storms. Storage tanks are one reason, acting as safeguards against unexpected ratepayer demand, along with bypass lines and crossties with other utilities. Communication is also key. Reverse flow alarms, for example, alert utilities to potential contamination, allowing operators to get ahead of a situation and mitigate risks to consumers.
The goal of transparency is two-fold. First, it provides awareness of what is happening within the operating system and out in the field. It also gives customers access to information about their accounts and the utility’s operations.
The first can be realized through sensors, smart meters and analytics software. The second comes through consumer engagement platforms, where residential customers and businesses can see details regarding their consumption habits and find ways to lower their costs. These platforms also enable water utilities to proactively inform ratepayers when there are potential disruptions in service or when data shows a potential leak.
Through increased transparency of operations, water utilities can discover ways to cut costs and reduce manual labor. The most obvious way is by using sensor and meter data, combined with analytics, to mitigate non-revenue water (NRW). Beyond leaks, water utilities can find ways to reduce energy usage by examining how they treat and convey water. And with analytics tools that convey information automatically to stakeholders, utilities can run and send reports directly to field staff, versus manually pulling and collecting them for later analysis.
Energy efficiency—in both water conveyance and treatment processes—reduces the utility’s carbon footprint, reduces greenhouse gasses and supports sustainability objectives. Similarly, efficiency in water usage can reduce stress on water sources, which is important in all regions but is especially critical in water-scarce zones. All of this can be achieved taking advantage of data analysis and leveraging communication tools to respond quickly to existing or potential urgent conditions. With access to more data, utilities can detect or even prevent main breaks, leaks and more.
How to Reach Your Utility’s Full Potential
Fortunately, the knowledge and technologies water utilities need to achieve the qualities outlined above already exist. Here are four ways to maximize their potential:
- Intelligent measurement
Having sensors and analytics software is a good start but to realize a return on their investment, water utilities must be using the right tool to measure at the level of precision, accuracy and longevity they need. The format of the data also matters. Will it be raw, or will it be processed? Does it come with alarms? Can urgency levels be set on those alerts and alarms? Likewise, data will need context. For example, a drop in pressure in one area of the system may require a different response than a drop in several areas.
- Reliable communication
Utilities rely on complex communication systems to send and receive sensor data, alerts, alarms and more. These systems must be robust, redundant and agile. In other words, the communication equipment itself needs to be able to endure all levels of emergencies, from main breaks to hurricanes. In addition, it needs to have multiple backups. For example, if the network goes down, the data can be stored in the meter until communication is restored. Lastly, it must facilitate an immediate reaction so personnel can respond to an issue before it gets out of hand.
- Actionable data
Analytic software must be able to turn data into action items. This can be achieved by integrating it with a hydraulic model or SCADA system for plant operations. At the end of the measurement, communications and integrations, there must a phone call, push notification, bill or email to someone with instructions on what to do.
- Customer engagement
The faster utilities can tell ratepayers about a cost-saving status change, action or required attention, the more ratepayers value the service—and the higher their satisfaction. This can be done on demand (in a pull scenario) or involving emails, app alerts, automated calls or a combination thereof (in a push scenario).
As technologies evolve and become more affordable over the years, utilities have the opportunity for greater visibility into their systems than ever before. By leveraging the right technology, every utility can reach its full potential for the benefit of its customers, its employees and the community it serves.