Intelligence-driven supply performance

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Alessandro Bettin explains the benefits of a data-driven water management system, especially in helping manage or avoid intermittent water supply.  

The management of a water network is a complex and challenging job, but thanks to the technology available in this era of the Internet of Things (IoT), there is the opportunity to shift from an empirical approach to a data-driven decision-making process.

Climate change impacts

Water utilities worldwide are facing difficulties in maintaining a good level of service in a changing environment, characterised by increasing water scarcity.

Because of climate change, precipitation regimes are increasingly often characterised by heavy, concentrated rainfall, followed by prolonged drought. Highly concentrated volumes of rain, dispersed through surface runoff, are not effective for groundwater recharge and so impact water storage. The direct consequence is the reduction of pure water available and difficulties in guaranteeing the right water supply to customers.

This increases the risk that a utility will deliver an Intermittent Water Supply (IWS). Indeed, because of climate change, intermittent supply can become a reality even in developed countries that have never faced such problems before. Unfortunately, changing water network operations to manage IWS is an extreme solution and, if immediate action isn’t taken, a temporary emergency can become permanent. Permanent IWS is detrimental for pipe integrity and the quality of water supplied. Moreover, it is very difficult to reverse the system back into delivering a 24/7 service.

Managing supplies

Networks affected by IWS generally show a high level of leakage. It’s therefore mandatory to improve the management of the network, focusing on the most effective actions and interventions to reduce leakage. In this regard, data and digital transformation can make a real difference.

An innovative approach based on data analytics can minimise the risk of IWS through targeted leakage reduction and optimised operation. At the same time, where IWS is already in place it can support a faster transition to continuous supply.

Historically, water utilities have usually had access to customer data, field measurements, network data, operational data, and financial data. These resources are often spread across digital and hard copy sources and are often in different formats, requiring different software. Moreover, the volume of data collected is growing exponentially, due to the increasing availability of sensor and monitoring equipment. The problem is not one of lack of data; the difficulty is in extracting the correct data to help inform decision making.

Smart data  

The solution is to digitise and integrate all relevant information into a ‘data lake’, namely a container of data from different sources. The data is then analysed, systemised, and used to create a database that can be used on an analytics platform to create dashboards and visual data. These sequential processes aim to create a customised Water Management System (WMS) that can be used for daily operations and long-term planning, providing coordinated displays showing key performance indicators (KPIs), trends, correlations, forecasting and process analytics, including predictive maintenance.

The first step is to collect all relevant data available:

  • SCADA (pressure, flow, reservoir level and water quality)
  • Billing systems
  • GIS
  • Workforce management tools for interventions and operations
  • CRM software for user complaints and problems reported

Although SCADA and GIS are the most important sources to be captured, not all aforementioned data are mandatory for the development of a WMS. A WMS can be tailored depending on the existing level of performance and the stock of data available.

There are several analytic platforms available on the market for data integration and management. These platforms provide Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) capabilities that facilitate the process of capturing, cleansing, and storing data using a uniform and consistent format, easily accessible to end-users and IoT technologies. Additional platforms can be used for data visualisation and dashboard preparation.

State of the art solutions are web-based and compatible with any web browser and device (from the big screen of a control room to a smartphone or a tablet). The most advanced platforms enable users to create their own graphs and analytics. With a WMS, water utilities can control and manage all data related to water distribution and the control of non-revenue water (NRW).

Transformative collaboration

The synergy between hydraulic engineers, industry experts, IT software engineers and data analysts is the key to success in implementing the digital transformation of a water utility. This enables utilities to exploit the potential offered by artificial intelligence and Big Data to support operational and management systems.

WMS should support several important features for leakage management, including:

  • NRW monitoring in each district metered area
  • Economic and volumetric water balance
  • Leakage costs
  • Intervention priorities
  • Leakage repair statistics
  • Measurements of water recovered
  • Analysis of leakage trends
  • KPIs for network efficiency, benchmarking analysis, and energy performance

By using advanced statistical tools, it is possible to establish which pipes require replacement or rehabilitation. Systems can monitor data streams constantly to identify and correct functional anomalies and errors.

An advanced WMS can dramatically improve water management, providing early warning systems, real-time alarms for new leaks, prompt intervention to prevent incidents and detect reduced service levels.

Financial benefits

IWS can be improved by including the monitoring of pressure and water distribution in each distribution area. Leak detection can be based on the correlation between the pressure pattern and the flow pattern. The full monitoring of water loss-related data and the automatic implementation of IWS KPIs are key to delivering the required quantity of water at minimum cost. It is also possible to highlight areas with higher levels of leakage where interventions aimed at leak reduction are most worthwhile.

Making water distribution equitable

It can be a challenging task to maintain equitable water distribution that allows all customers to receive the minimum amount of water regulated to the agreed level of service. Because of the dynamics of opening and closing systems, air in pipelines and pressure transients, it may be difficult to supply peripheral areas correctly.

Under IWS conditions, private tanks are generally installed by users to store water for use when services are down. When the operator restarts the service by opening the valve at the outlet of a reservoir, the water starts to flow, filling the nearest users’ tanks first. A sort of competition between customers to take as much water as possible can be established and if the process is not managed, some disadvantaged users could remain without water longer than is necessary. Through historical analysis of the correlation between pressure, flow time and user consumption in each sub-area, it is possible to evaluate and forecast the water distribution to any single user.

Water quality integration allows problem areas to be isolated, with early warning systems diagnosing difficulties and any degradation in water quality parameters.

Regulatory compliance  

WMS can also dramatically reduce the technical and financial effort required to meet the increasingly stringent requirements of the water regulators. Authorities worldwide are requesting increasingly more data, along with benchmarking reports and certification of good practice. This can be a time-consuming and repetitive activity that can be automatised in a digital environment. The result can not only reduce workloads but deliver higher-quality reporting.

The benefits of WMS are technical, economic, and environmental, with positive outcomes for customers and stakeholders. Data management and business intelligence, together with effective water saving policies, provide a path enabling the water sector to embrace innovation, resilience, and sustainability.

The author

Alessandro Bettin is corporate manager at BM Tecnologie Industriali and a member of the IWA Intermittent Water Supply SG management committee.