Water utilities face unique challenges on their operations, including balancing the issue of growing demand, increasing energy prices, aging pipes, increased pressures for efficiency and sustainability and a challenging outlook for water supplies. Traditional management tools and current policies are often inadequate to address these issues. The maturity of data-driven solutions and the rapid evolution of telecommunication technologies and networks allow for increased instrumentation and telemetry of water networks, especially of distribution systems, permitting the water utility to now introduce smart devices such as pumps, pipes, sensors, and valves in its network.

A good smart water network should be layered, making use of data from communicating technologies to support water sources and production, transmission and distribution, and, finally, consumer needs. Each of these layers should be supported by a robust telecommunication and IT network to make the flow of information through the network fast, reliable, and secure. Smart devices may include everything from sensors to remote control, thus requiring different levels of reliability and security. A solid smart water network should make sure to address these needs properly to avoid later issues in managing these devices.

All the data collected from the smart devices should then be managed, fused, and analyzed to provide the water utility with information that can be used in different phases of the utility process, such as real-time monitoring and automation, operational readiness, and network planning.

The more data sources and analysis involved in the process, the higher the value provided by the smart water network. Data should not be restricted to a single application as it presents less value for money than multipurpose data. Beyond old SCADA systems, new automation tools enable water and wastewater utilities to avoid billions of dollars in costs while ensuring optimal performance of the systems. Water efficiency analytics allow city workers to predict leaks and optimize pressure in distribution networks to reduce burst, conserve water, save money, prevent service disruptions and improve quality of service. By utilizing analytics and optimization software in the long-range planning process, cities can take much of the guesswork out of the design.

Technologies and systems available today for smart water networks include, amongst many others, the following: SCADA, Advanced Metering (AMR/AMI), Sensors, Flow and Pressure meters, Data loggers, Utility dashboards, Asset management (including GIS and schematic tools), Workforce tools, Alert systems, and Analytics tools (Big Data).

Some of the new technologies that we believe should be consider in this Technical Analysis include the following:

  • Smart water: the use of sensors along the distribution network to collect system data which can then be processed by analytics tools and help the utility to come up with a monitoring plan and solution for losses and leakages.
  • Pressure and flow monitoring: there are several different types of meters, and sensors available in the market today employing acoustic, thermal, electromagnetic, and chemical detection techniques. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses and cost, which should be analyzed to determine the best fit for the utility.
  • Monitoring technology: systems for monitoring and analyzing distribution efficiency allow the utility to detect, real time, non-conformities on network performance, such as variations in pressure, leaks, and shortage of supply for example.
  • Remote metering: Digital hydrometers allow remote reading using wireless technologies.
  • Planning software: there are many types of software in the market today that can help on planning solutions for distribution systems. This type of software help in the analysis, design, simulations and optimization of the network. By planning and simulating a project, the utility may reduce operational costs and improve the quality of service. These tools may even help in managing the electricity usage by the utility, which represents one of the biggest expenditures of water utilities.

The Role of Telecommunications

Communications and big data technology drive the success of smart water metering and smart water networks and water utilities must make decisions on what technologies to use in data transmissions: telephone wires, cables, broadband, fiber optic cable, radio frequency, emerging technologies or cellular such as 5G. Each of these options differ in popularity, cost, reliability, security, and scalability. Water utilities need to not only make sure that their technology selections are fit for the desired purpose but also that they will provide a base for building new services into the future.

While there are no broad standards for water utilities, many of the deployments today use some sort of wireless communication. But that does not mean utilities are constrained by one technology; numerous deployments use complementary communications technologies to build a robust network.

The technology choices made today will need to be used throughout a critical period of change in the industry and will need to adapt to many technological and behavioral changes on the horizon from the increase of data to the decision making available to consumers and the utility. Selecting a solution which will not adapt to future needs could be a costly mistake.

Water utility companies need to take an all-inclusive approach to their choice of communications and should consider several topics, such as: Is this technology scalable? What is the latency involved? What coverage can be provided? Does it operate in licensed spectrum? Is it a proprietary or standardized solution?

CelPlan has performed these types studies for several utilities in Brazil and the US and can propose unique solutions for our customers, to support its efforts of network optimization whilst reducing CAPEX and OPEX.

The dimensioning of such a telecommunications network, requires several layers of information amongst which we can mention:

  • Location of the devices to be monitored and controlled (geo-location)
  • Characterization of the communication needs of each device (data tonnage, latency and protocols)
  • Infrastructure technology sharing availability and agreements
  • Telecommunication technology choices
  • Preliminary design of the telecommunication network (backbone, backhaul, last mile)