Navigating the Smart Water Journey

Perspectives from the 9th annual conference of the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN)

On the 15th and 16th of May the 9th annual Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN) conference took place in Miami. The conference attracted 340 delegates from over 20 countries. On the back of the success of the SWAN Americas Alliance, this was the first time the conference was hosted outside of Europe, and it underlined to global stature that SWAN has achieved.

The key topic of the conference is Smart Water Management, in all its guises. Smart Water Management is the application of electronic hardware, software and people to improve the design, situational awareness, control and performance of water systems or subsystems. In Smart Water there is a particular focus on the use of digital technology and data to increase its efficiency and effectiveness and to reduce risks in water systems and the associated environment.

This SWAN conference expressly offered the stage to utilities from around the world to share their successes and lessons learned related to smart water applications. The key message: people, processes and policy are the key to success.

Opening Keynote by the director of Miami-Dada WASD – warning for infobesity.

Drivers for Smart Water

With the increasing capabilities of digital technologies, Smart Water has been increasing gaining momentum over the last decade. But the success is not driven by technology but by the need for resilience in the water sector. Whereas smart water was initially the domain of drinking water technology suppliers, offering technologies to reduce non-revenue water through leak detection and smart metering, it is now being embraced by the water sector in general. It focuses on the effective use of limited resources. Drivers include: ensuring affordability of water services and customer satisfaction while being faced with challenges such as climate change, ageing infrastructure, and an ageing (and soon to retire) workforce.

Utility Experience with Smart Water

The important message that resonated during the conference, was that successful implementation of technology, smart or otherwise, does primarily depend on people, processes and policy. Technology is of secondary importance. Central topics discussed was gaining permissions for step changes in technology (e.g. the move to smart meters) and gaining the trust of the employees that need to use the systems. The solutions need to be fit for purpose – more information is not by definition good. Data discipline was advocated and infobesity was warned against. Having the people on board who can carry this transition, e.g. with ICT skills, was seen as a key challenge for water utilities.

340 delegates from all over the globe.

Examples from the field

A few examples presented:

  • Use of acoustic fiber optics to monitor water mains saving 42M$ by just in time replacement (WSSC)
  • Up to 10% reduction in energy consumption by demand prediction (Vitens)
  • Reducing operator training from years to <6 months though standardising interfaces (SUEZ)
  • Using machine learning to predict service line material increasing the hit rate amongst homes visited by engineering crews from 15% to 85% thus saving 11M$ (Flint, Michigan)

Round table discussion on new business models – Data-as-a-Service.

Digital Twins

On the day preceding the conference, the SWAN Digital Twin H2O work group organised a special session on digital twins. A digital twin is a virtual/digital representation of both the elements and the dynamics of a water plant or system. These systems are used to provided actionable information, e.g. for design, optimisation and/or control of systems. Although the distinction between traditional numerical models and digital twins is not well defined, the general consensus during the session was that a digital twin has a higher level of complexity through combining multiple aspects such as hydraulics, biochemical models, into one environment, thus providing a more complete digital description of the physical world. Furthermore, the digital twin is frequently updated by data from its real world counterpart, allowing continuous adjustment and calibration. Although the water industry has been using such solutions for many years, increased computing power and increasing deployment of sensors (e.g. smart meters) mean digital twins are now gaining more momentum.

Digital twins are used at different scales, from treatment process to the complete urban water cycle. Although digital offer great promise, various speakers brought us down to earth by pointing out that, yes, digital twins have a part to play, but they are not a silver bullet. For small scale problems, the business case is weak as they require investment in sensors and sensor maintenance to feed them with reliable data. Furthermore, the virtual twins themselves also require maintenance. Also, they need to be integrated in the day to day practice of the utility and match with its digital infrastructure. Therefore, a step by step implementation was advocated, with initial benefits primarily expected from design and scenario studies.

For a more extensive description of digital twins and their potential for the water industry, keep an eye out for the upcoming Trend Alert on this topic.

How cynical – advertising for the bottled water brand Smart Water at Miami airport.