Energy utilities are commonly associated with the rollout of smart grid and smart meter infrastructures, but recently we’ve seen water utilities beginning to invest in the technologies due to the substantial benefits they too can deliver to their business, customers and the environment. How can we ensure that the deployment of smart water meters achieves its potential? What are the barriers to take-up that need to be removed? And what is the current industry best practice that others could usefully adopt?

Smart grids enable two-way communications and increase the value of the provided services of water suppliers to their customers. Additionally, smart meters, an essential aspect of the smart grid, are able to identify and resolve inefficiencies in water use, analyse water flows in near-real time, bolster customer service and help conserve water by providing the right tools to monitor usage and detect leaks and network irregularities.

Nevertheless, some European countries are lagging behind in their adoption of the technology particularly in respect to water, due to challenges concerning limited bandwidth for wireless communication, lack of consumer understanding around the benefits, data security and no worldwide technology standard being implemented. 

According to the analyst house, Frost & Sullivan, there is a strong emphasis on business case development, in relation to water scarcity, which is restricting the faster roll out of smart meters for water in countries such as the UK. It believes that once initial pilots reveal the indirect benefits, the market will grow quickly.

An example of smart meters in action within the water industry is Veolia Water’s m20 city project, which was launched in early 2011. m20 city, a joint venture between Veolia and the mobile telecommunications operator, Orange, is a company specialising in remote environmental data and water meter reading services. It allows Veolia to improve the gathering and management of data related to water usage, which has significant implications for the reduction of waste. It ensures individual customers are invoiced for exact water usage, and receive automatic alerts in case of any abnormal consumption and allows companies and real estate managers to keep a check on year-round usage across a number of properties. Furthermore, the real-time monitoring of the water network enables the detection of serious or persistent leaks, and of backflows.

The Veolia Water case demonstrates that by implementing an ICT platform, which is future proof, open, scalable and capable of adopting innovations and new services, the challenges can be overcome. Furthermore, concerns around data security can be alleviated by installing the security infrastructures required to protect customer information, as well as ensuring smart meters are secure from hackers and other cyber attacks.

Smart meters have a critical role to play in the water industry due to their ability to identify system inconsistencies for water network operations. The m2o city project already discussed is the most mature and advanced real life example today. Through its smart grid infrastructure, Veolia can identify gaps in consumption in residential areas, streets or city centres; help fix water leaks; or monitor for customers who are consuming water without receiving bills.

A Meter Data Management (MDM) solution plays a key role in making this possible, because it is able to manage vast amounts of data resulting from smart meters. In the immediate term, m2o city has improved Veolia’s customer satisfaction levels due to the ability of carrying out remote meter readings, meaning customers are not disturbed by house visits, which results in fewer complaints and billing enquiries.

Smart meters deliver additional benefits to water operators, including:

  • The ability to measure a large variety of physical characteristics, including temperature, pressure, conductivity, opacity and chemicals. This enables operators to continuously track and optimise the quality of water supplied to customers.
  • Help trace-back and identify root causes of any disturbance which should arise, such as burst pipes.
  • Better handling of water scarcity / drought situations by regulating water flows.

It is clear to see that software technologies are at the heart of delivering the benefits of smart grids and smart meters. The capabilities of MDM systems have already been covered but in brief, customer care and billing applications can handle every aspect of the customer lifecycle – from collection and payment processing to sharing precise usage data. 

By having a smart grid and a solid application infrastructure in place, water utilities can keep water running at affordable levels and develop loyal customer bases who share an interest in water conservation. For consumers, smart meters will help increase awareness around water use, thus making them more conscious when it comes to using water. This in turn will aid water scarcity and the environment. Furthermore, if utilities address the challenges associated with smart technologies by putting in place the right IT infrastructures, they will not only achieve the benefits but will also help curb water use and improve customer satisfaction – a win, win situation for all.