What will the water utility and the customer learn from the smart water meter?

Fourth knowledge exchange meeting of the Hydroinformatics Platform zooms in on smart water meters

The smart water meter offers prospects for both water utilities and customers. This was the outcome of this year’s fourth knowledge exchange meeting of the Hydroinformatics Platform, in which the state-of-play concerning smart water meters was discussed from a variety of perspectives. It is important that decision-making about the deployment of smart meters take their sustainability impact into account on a case-by-case basis.

Our society is digitising and the water sector is doing likewise. Smart water meters can therefore no longer be ignored in the operational management of water utilities. To what extent could this technology also mean something for the customer? This question was at the centre of this year’s fourth (and last) knowledge exchange meeting, organised by the Hydroinformatics Platform – a form of collaborative within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities. Speakers with technical, socio-scientific and practical perspectives shared their views on the smart water meter.

Sensors for smart meters

Corina Carpentier, of the Sensileau platform, spoke about the kinds of sensors that are available and what they are used for in the distribution network. The Sensileau platform was set up to unlock knowledge and information about sensor technologies that are globally available online. At this stage, there are a limited number of parameters suited for integration into digital water meters, such as pressure, pH and electrical conductivity. Although meters with these types of sensors are still rare, there is a growing interest in them among developers. This could mean that the smart meter of the future will also execute quality measurements. It is important to understand what this would mean for the water utility.

Legal and regulatory framework

Another perspective on smart water meters and what they entail relates to the legal and regulatory framework. Carpentier spoke about the consequences of the revised Drinking Water Directive, which was adopted by the European Commission in 2020. This obligates water utilities to make the most recent monitoring results available online in an accessible form for the customer.  Apart from the recent data, this also involves the possibility of requesting historical data, although it is as yet not clear which data are concerned nor how far back in time they should be made available. It is important to monitor how the European guidelines are incorporated into the Dutch legislation. This process is still in full development.

Privacy-sensitive data

When the water utilities make use of the data collected by these smart meters, questions obviously also arise about their privacy-sensitivity. Johan van Erp, specialist in smart meters at Brabant Water, talked during the knowledge exchange meeting about how they approach the issue. The basic principles of ‘privacy by design’ govern the data collection at the water utility. In the first instance, the customer’s attention is directed not so much to the smart meter as a device, but to the metering services in can offer and what the customer can do with them. Besides serving the customer, these data also provide Brabant Water itself with a treasure of information. The water utility works out how it handles this in a number of user cases. Van Erp also explained the development of a digital twin of the distribution network, fed with data from sensors and smart meters. The objectives of the digital twin are the tracing of anomalies in the network, a more efficient water allocation, an interconnection with changes in the surrounding environment, and an improved operational management.

Climate change

Smart water meters also offer a possible means of addressing climate change. This was apparent in the contribution from Cindy Vanderstraeten and Bert Debaecke from the Flemish water utility De Watergroep. The management of water shortages in a changing climate is a goal of the Flemish government. In what is known as the ‘Blue Deal’, smart water meters are being incorporated into a digital water network as a key element in achieving this goal. Over the next eight years, our southern neighbours need to roll out smart meters over three million households. The three Flemish drinking water utilities are collaborating in the effort, which also involves working with the managers of the gas and electricity networks. Through the communication infrastructure of the smart electricity meters, the data from the smart gas and water meters are collected and sent to the power utility. The utility then shares the relevant data with the gas and water utilities. At the water utilities the data ends up in their Smart Water Platform. This consists of an integration layer, based on SAP (Systems Analysis Program Development), with which the functional building blocks can be formulated.

Human behaviour

The knowledge exchange meeting concluded with a discussion of the issue of human behaviour. KWR researcher Stef Koop considered the question of the behavioural mechanisms that might play a role in realising water-savings, and what smart meters could mean in this context. Behavioural research indicates that our reasoning only accounts for five percent of our decision-making. The remainder is a product of our intuition and instinct. A study into behavioural influences on water-use produced a wide range of insights, said Koop. A combination of several behavioural mechanisms therefore needs to be taken into consideration, and it is also helpful to apply repetition. Only limited research has been done into intuitive decision-making and into the effects over the long term. Lastly, an individually-targeted approach, involving data feed-back from the smart water meters, shows promise.

Taking sustainability into account

The meeting was of course intended to launch the discussion about water meters. And it succeeded brilliantly. While various Dutch and Flemish water utilities are taking major steps in their deployment, numerous opportunities still lie ahead. An important point that was raised concerned the question of the relationship of the footprint of the technological solutions discussed with regard to the problem that these solutions are intended to solve. In the specific case of leakage losses, the net result is certainly positive. But it is still unclear whether this is generally the case. This is why it is important that decision-making about the deployment of smart meters take their sustainability impact into account on a case-by-case basis.