Digitalization of water utilities: Time to move
The digitalization of the water utility sector is in full swing. Safe water extraction, smart water supply networks, fast leak detection, and better customer service: Utilities are exploring what benefits cutting-edge digital technologies can deliver in all their activities. It is no longer a question of whether utilities should use digital tools, but of how. This doesn't mean that utilities should adopt individual digital technologies uncritically, or without proper planning. But why is digitalization so crucial for the water sector? More than that, why is it vital that utilities turn digital not just quickly, but effectively?
Drivers of the digitalization in the water sector
Climate change, population growth, tightening legal requirements, an aging infrastructure, and the demand for a modern customer experience: Water utilities are facing a host of challenges. Modern technology offers ways of mastering these challenges and minimize costs to boot - if implemented correctly.
But what exactly are the main problems water utilities face in the coming decades? And how can the digitalization of water supply networks help overcome them?
Water scarcity is one of the burning issues of the 21st century - and one rooted in many causes. At the most basic level, less and less clean water is available, yet water use continues to rise. Major reasons for this are:
- Rising temperatures and longer dry periods
- Polluted surface and ground water
- Local overuse by urban areas
- Practically no recycling
- Water infrastructure issues
Over the coming decades, global warming will bring wetter winters, but also drier summers. Even now, every year, almost a third of all Europeans experience water scarcity.
Agriculture is one of the most visible sufferers. Drier summers increase the need for irrigation, just when there is the least water available. The global water use continues to grow by 1% every year.
Water quality, safety, and security
Besides the size of the supply, water quality is another growing concern. Many pollutants stay in the environment for a very long time. This includes a number of substances recognized as harmful only recently, such as microplastics, PFAS and hormone-like chemicals. Coastal communities have an additional problem: Salt water is slowly infiltrating the aquifers they extract freshwater from.
These quality issues alone increase the cost and effort needed for water purification and quality control.
Additionally, however, the existing water infrastructure is vulnerable to natural catastrophes - as well as human threats such as terrorism and war. The Ukraine war is a drastic demonstration of the latter. Thus, utilities will have to invest more into surveillance and safety measures. They also need to keep their emergency plans updated.
The digitalization of the water sector can increase its resilience - as long as the digital tools used don't become a risk in themselves. Digital water technology has already made progress in this direction, for instance with better encryption.
Legal requirements are also becoming stricter. The new Drinking Water Directive, for example, is increasing the regulatory burden on utilities.
Apart from the long-term goal of supply security, it now also places a focus on transparency and effective risk management. Without the raw data needed for this, and the digital tools to process it, it is difficult to fulfill reporting duties or design safety plans.
This is one reason why water supply companies need up-to-date data on the water quality in their supply networks. By installing automatic measuring stations at crucial points in the piping network, they can generate that data. Modern sensors and IoT technology make this increasingly simple.
Water loss: NRW and infrastructure
Water supply networks themselves often contribute to the problem. Many suppliers struggle with high levels of "non-revenue water": This describes the water which utilities feed into the system, but never makes it to a paying customer.
Besides water theft, the main reason for NRW are pipe leaks and breaks. Small underground leaks, in particular, can easily go unnoticed for years - if nobody is actually searching for them.
Solutions include running an active leak detection program using field service teams. Remote monitoring of flow volume can also help utilities notice and locate leaks faster. Utilities could, for instance, use smart water meters in tandem with the Hawle.live BOX.
But NRW doesn't just mean that water services lose carefully produced water and revenue. Damaged pipes, illegally opened hydrants and similar issues allow germs and pollutants to get into our drinking water network.
As mains bursts in urban areas show, the lost water itself can also cause enormous damage. This highlights the need for prevention, monitoring and rapid response.
Water utilities that wish to reduce NRW often suffer from a lack of data. Larger facilities, such as water treatment plants, are relatively simple to run and monitor with dedicated control systems. The technology for this has existed for decades.
Until recently, however, it was difficult to monitor an entire water supply network from the intake to every last service line. For very old pipes, especially, operators might not even know where exactly they run, or what material they are made of. To make management and maintenance more effective, utilities need to take stock of their infrastructure.
Once assets are located and assessed, water supply operators can also visualize them using intuitive interfaces. The Hawle.live APP, for example, can display the position and condition of hydrants, valves and other important elements on a user-friendly interactive map.
To monitor a water supply network in the long term without taking up valuable staff time, IoT systems like Hawle.live BOX are ideal. Apart from flow volume and water quality measurements, utilities can also use the system for applications like recording the water levels in reservoirs and tanks, or receiving flooding alerts.
All this data, too, finds its way into the Hawle.live APP.
Digital utilities meet growing customer service expectations
Lagging digitalization and lacking data also affect customer satisfaction. Today, customers expect more than a bill in the mail and phone service during business hours. Especially if said bill is based on an estimate of the annual water use, which might then need substantial corrections.
All too often, water bill shock is the first sign of a larger leak in the home or a business' premise - if it hasn't caused obvious damage yet. Lastly, every service interruption causes frustration. Much of it could be prevented with a smarter maintenance approach.
Today, many customers expect a digital self-service offer - for instance, with current or even real-time data on their own water use. This reduces unpleasant surprises, such as having to pay extra for unnoticed water loss. Thanks to precise data generated by smart water meters, utilities can also offer personalized rates, which can be less expensive for the customer.
Digitalization as an opportunity for water suppliers
Over the coming years, water utilities will have to confront a number of serious challenges. Properly and quickly implemented, new digital tools can help fight water scarcity and ensure access to clean drinking water. At the same time, they simplify compliance with stricter legal requirements.
However, digitalization also creates a wide range of opportunities for the utility sector: from smart, connected water meters and other IoT sensors over intuitive map applications to modern rates and better service for customers. With digital tools, water utilities can also keep costs low - and increase staff and customer satisfaction.
Digital technology is evolving constantly. For more details on the growing trends in the water sector, check out our next article "Digital water: from smart water networks to AI". Here are some of the highlights:
- How the Internet of Things is turning water networks smart
- Why mobile apps and digital maps are so useful
- How metadata simplifies facility planning and maintenance
- What AI can do for water utilities.
For over 10 years, Hawle Service GmbH has been designing and manufacturing digital products for water applications. With our experience and commitment to quality, we are reliable long-term partners for water suppliers in Europe and around the world. If you have any questions, our technical experts will be happy to answer them.