Digital Solutions Essential Guides Europe

Essential Guide: Smart water, current challenges and future solutions

Thursday, 27 June 2024

The world of water is a paradox in many ways. Ageing infrastructure, unfit and unable to keep up with the demands of population growth and industry demand in many parts of the world, while creaking and leaking in others – it’s all over the news. However, on the flip side, the world of water tech is growing at what can seem an exponential rate, and the sector is an enthusiastic and innovative adopter of technologies such as AI and machine learning.

According to the WEF, smart water is potentially a solution to issues including leak detection, water efficiency, energy efficiency, water quality improvements and more. Smart water technology provides a platform for more efficient technology use and more informed decision-making.

Aquatech Online talked to five industry experts to find out: What smart water is; what problems smart water solves; and what the smart water future looks like.


Smart water: What is it and what does it do?

Eric Bindler, senior research director, Bluefield Research told Aquatech Online that the company takes a broad view of the smart water, or digital water, market that encompasses: “The full ecosystem of solutions used to collect, transmit, manage, analyse, and use data in the water sector. This definition includes cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, digital twins, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications, but it also includes more mature systems such as SCADA, smart metering, hydraulic modeling, and GIS.”

Bindler added that Bluefield Research considers professional services to be a critical component of the smart water market. This is because: “Most utilities lack the internal technical capacity to design, install, configure, and integrate digital solutions on their own without third-party support.”

“The data generated are more readily optimised for insight and decision-making.”

Alex Money, CEO, Watermarq, makes that the distinction between smart water and old tech that still populates much of the world’s water infrastructure: “The distinction between smart water systems and ‘dumb’ water systems is that the data generated are more readily optimised for insight and decision-making. This is achieved through a combination of hardware (e.g. sensors, IoT), software (e.g. integration and aggregation of data from non-standardised sources in real time) and enabling technologies (e.g. NFC, RFID, etc).”

Andy Smith, head of Smart Water at Anglian Water believes smart water is a catalyst for change in the water sector: “In simple terms, with every iteration, it is enabling us to do things better than we previously did. To fully realise the value of smart water solutions in meeting the challenges that the water industry is facing now and in the future, it is essential that organisations do not just focus on the technology aspects of smart, but consider the interaction with people and processes, enabling full alignment with the outcomes required and, ultimately, the goals and purpose of the organisation.”

Garry Tabor, director of Smart Water Solutions at Badger Meter, told Aquatech Online that: “Currently, Smart water tends to be any new remote water monitoring which relays on a battery powered sensor and a remote transmitter unit (RTU) to collect the sensor data and transfer it to the water company. The most recognised examples right now would be household consumption data, network pressure and flow, sewer flow and level data, and now river water quality monitoring.”



What problems can smart water currently address?

Smith: “Smart Water solutions can be applied and create value throughout the asset and water lifecycles. The solutions available now provide a comprehensive overview of our water and wastewater systems, highlighting operating performance issues, facilitating root cause analysis, and supporting adaptive planning and our response strategies.

He shared some examples of some current use cases:
Energy management and optimisation: “By continuously collecting, analysing and visualising data from sensors and IoT devices, combined with real-time performance dashboards, frontline teams can proactively manage energy consumption to drive operational efficiency.”

Asset health and maintenance: “Condition-based monitors (CBM) and the use of data analytics are used to track asset health indicators, alerting users when anomalies are seen and detecting early signs of potential failure. This enables frontline teams to be more proactive, mitigating risks to ensure asset availability is optimal.”

“Increasingly, it is being used to project demand and supply to support the provision of sustainable services, particular in contexts of variability.”

Pollutions: “In recent years, we have seen an increase in both the frequency and intensity of storm events due to climate change. The use of digital twins to monitor our wastewater collection and treatment systems; by using rainfall forecasts and understanding our pumping capacity, we can optimise our operations to reduce overflows, mitigating the impact of these events on the environment.”

Bindler: “Amid mounting financial, environmental, regulatory, and workforce pressures, smart water solutions enable utilities to monitor and manage assets and operations as never before, in turn allowing them to better serve their customers and stakeholders, maximize their operational performance and efficiency, and safeguard their assets and natural resources.”

He added that although specific applications and usage varies widely across the sector, smart water uses include:

  • Reducing conveyance network disturbances (e.g. leaks, pipe bursts, sewer overflows, I&I, and blockages);
  • Optimizing operating expenses (e.g. energy, chemicals) at treatment plants and pumping facilities;
  • Enabling a more proactive or predictive approach to asset management and maintenance;
  • Building community resilience against extreme climate and weather events (e.g. floods, droughts, severe storms);
  • Improving workforce collaboration, safety, and training;
  • Bridging data and information silos, providing critical insights and recommendations, and supporting better decision-making for both leaders and operators across the organisation.

Money: “Smart water systems have typically helped monitor quality and address problems associated with non-revenue water and unaccounted-for water (leakage detection, theft etc). Increasingly, it is being used to project demand and supply to support the provision of sustainable services, particular in contexts of variability.”


What does the future of smart water look like?

Money told Aquatech Online that smart water needed to drive the narrative around valuing water: “The future of smart water is to go beyond volumetric analysis, to consider the value of water – who is using it, how much, when, where, and for what. This could be particularly useful in developing value-based water pricing frameworks, which could help transform the financial sustainability of some water utilities and other entities whose viability might otherwise be marginal.”

Bindler acknowledges that the excitement around the latest technologies in the sector: “There is significant buzz in the industry about potential game-changing applications of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (e.g. generative AI and machine learning), IoT, cloud-based solutions, and digital twins.”

However, he offers a note of caution: “While I share this enthusiasm, I am also mindful of the highly fragmented nature of the water sector. According to Bluefield estimates, only 1.5 per cent of the more than 400,00 global water and wastewater utility organisations serve populations greater than 100,000 people, while nearly 80 per cent of utilities serve less than 5,000 people. Organisations of this size typically lack the financial capacity and technical expertise to implement technologies that are designed for their much larger peers.”

“The thirst for more and more data in order to optimise and build greater trust will drive smart water.”

For Tabor, the future of smart water lies in unity: “The future of a truly proactive smart water company is one that can audit their current capabilities, break down the historical independent silos of data and unify everything onto one platform. Only then can you begin to see the big picture and true benefit of related changes and how they all relate to each other. This will happen in time due to the need for more regulatory reporting and the public’s need for reassurance that water is safe and environmental laws and sustainability KPIs are being adhered too.

The driver for unity will lie with water companies. He added: “The water sector’s use of digital technology lags behind other utility sectors, the thirst for more and more data in order to optimise and build greater trust will drive smart water; people understand the value of IoT and the value it brings. We have need for Smart water, we have the tools to make it work and the supply change is capable. We now need the water industry itself to drive a holistic approach to developing solutions that deliver actionable insights and value to all stakeholders.”

Smith is excited by AI’s potential for positive disruption: “We are in unprecedented times in regard to the speed of innovation in the water sector, therefore, it is hard to exactly predict the future of smart water. However, we must accept that our smart water journeys are iterative by nature. The evolution and adoption of smart water creates the opportunity to meet the significant challenges that the water sector faces today and in the future. The recent emergence of AI is really exciting - its potential to be a positive disruptor in meeting some of our key challenges cannot be underestimated.”


Smart water challenges

There is no doubt that smart water is already delivering efficiencies and benefits for the industry, and that the future looks very interesting. However, there are still many challenges inherent in the adoption of smart water technologies and processes.

Tabor suggests three main challenges ahead: Data transmission frequency; battery life; and system maintenance. He explained to Aquatech Online: “A sensor can be low powered, however, transmitting the data requires burst of power, and the more frequently you want that data the greater the demand on the battery life.”

He added: “For smart water to work effectively it needs to harvest large quantities of data to study the patterns that are taking place – you collect large volumes of data into a ‘data lake’ and then apply machine learning and paten recognition. Most of the applications for smart water tend to be remote and most companies don’t have large service teams to maintain the systems and validate the sensor data.”

“Most companies don’t have large service teams to maintain the systems and validate the sensor data.”

Open access to data also needs to be address, according to Bindler. He told Aquatech Online: “For a real smart water revolution to take place in our industry, we will need to democratise access to data and digital solutions beyond the world’s largest, best-resourced, and most tech-savvy urban utilities.

He added: “In response, a growing roster of both smart water startups and industry incumbents are pioneering new, more cost-effective and user-friendly hardware and software, as well as innovative business models and service offerings (e.g. Software-as-a-Service, Data-as-a-Service, joint procurement). I am excited to see the industry continue to develop along these lines, delivering value and benefits to a much broader and more diverse range of utilities and communities across the globe.”

Democratisation of data is important, agrees Smith, but knowledge also needs to be shared before it is Iost. He told Aquatech Online: “If we consider our most important asset, our people, at least 30 per cent of our workforce is likely to retire within the next five to 10 years, which could result in an accumulated loss of knowledge. We need to fully understand the new capabilities and opportunities that smart water systems bring, how they enable our current workforce, the democratisation of knowledge, connecting teams and organisations to break down silos, and the barriers to innovation and wider sector collaboration.”

Ultimately, Smith said, we need to transform our current operating models to ensure a resilient, sustainable water future for all.