Kevin_Hutchings_091-PhotoBy Kevin Hutchings, Managing Director, South East Water

The water industry has many individual examples of digital technologies delivering more sustainable, cost ­effective and flexible water solutions for customers, but its overall adoption of emerging technologies could be greater. Engagement, collaboration and a bold mindset are essential if the water industry is to take full advantage of the next wave of opportunity technology is creating.

If we had the technology to deliver more flexibility and cost savings to water customers, increased asset utilisation for water authorities, and a reduced impact on the environment, we’d jump on it, right?

I’d like to think so. But despite the advances we’ve made in communications, battery technology and analytics, the water industry’s adoption of emerging technologies could be greater. Today I want to call out the technologies that are already unlocking value across the water supply chain, and identify the key ingredients for their successful, industry wide adoption.

The fact is, we already have technology embedded in our networks that is producing huge volumes of data across a range of indicators, including water quality, pressure, and wastewater flows. However, we are only just beginning to harness the value of this data.

shutterstock_67196335Technology isn’t the only driver of change – customer expectations, government policy and regulation, competition and economic climate all have a major influence – but we mustn’t lose sight of the opportunities before us.

When Sir Joseph William Bazalgette convinced authorities in 19th century London that a gravity sewer system was the only way to tackle the capital’s ‘Great Stink’, he established the design standard for urban sewer systems that is still upheld today.

Gravity has served us well, but technology now exists that can completely transform the way we manage wastewater, with benefits across the board. Let me give you an example.

South East Water is currently connecting 16,500 homes on the Mornington Peninsula with a pressure sewer system. At each property, the septic tank is replaced with an 850­litre storage tank and pump, which discharges into a pressured sewer network.

The system is built around an intelligent, SCADA connected system designed by South East Water called OneBox, in which each property’s sewer connection is remotely managed on a real time basis, depending on a range of local and network factors.

The benefits to South East Water as the asset owner are huge. Because we can regulate flows of waste into the network, we can remove diurnal peaks and reduce the size of the infrastructure needed to transport and process the wastewater.

For example, the reticulated network is made up of pipes with an internal diameter of just 63mm. Without the need for trenches and manholes, construction costs are slashed, and occupational health and safety risks involved in system maintenance are dramatically reduced.

What’s more, we’re able to monitor for illegal connections, inappropriate waste disposal, and water leaks such as leaking toilet cisterns. And that’s where the customer really benefits.

Last month our operations team picked up a continuously running wastewater pump at a customer property, a holiday home. Real-time data from the pump, which was transmitted back to South East Water on a second by second basis, suggested a water leak on the property, and we were able to notify the owners before damage occurred, and without significant impact on the water bill.

The environmental benefits have been significant also. The pressure sewer scheme’s smaller specifications enabled the use of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) during installation, which minimised surface disturbance in what is recognised as an environmentally sensitive area. In addition, the low pressure network design reduced the number of power hungry and expensive transfer main pumping stations from seven to two.

The benefits are clear and wide ranging, but how do we extend technology such as this more broadly across our industry, so that more customers can benefit?

To make progress, I believe there are three critical success factors: community engagement, collaboration, and a bold mindset.

Within our industry, many of us have long recognised the benefits in digitising and automating our water networks, but what of our customers and other stakeholders? Where do their interests lie? How can technology help to meet their needs? And how can we engage with them to demonstrate the value of digitising the network?

A key element in South East Water’s customer assistance program is the water audit, in which we supply customers experiencing financial stress with a handheld device that enables them to monitor water usage in real time and receive alerts when daily water usage targets are reached.

Over summer, an elderly couple in Melbourne’s south east successfully used the device to make a number of behaviour changes, such as shorter showers, less hose watering and fewer washing loads. The result was a reduction of $900 from their annual water bill and unsurprisingly, the couple are reluctant to return the device to South East Water. How many others would jump at the same opportunity to better manage water usage?

Planners and policymakers also have much to gain through network digitisation. By digitising our networks, we can make better decisions, more quickly, about how water is managed across a population.

Again, a real world example. Together with Yarra Valley Water and City West Water, South East Water currently has an end use study underway across a variety of residential accommodation types, ranging from inner­city apartments to dual pipe houses in the suburbs. The difference with this study is that data loggers have been replaced with digital meters, which provide an unprecedented view into water usage at the appliance and household level.

The high resolution data will help water authorities to plan like never before for future water demand, and to make more informed decisions about infrastructure sizing, and how to invest in long term water security. It’s a vital capability as we enter a period of increased climate uncertainty.

The end­use study also highlights a second critical ingredient in the successful adoption of new technologies – collaboration.

Industry Changing technology initiatives need industry collaboration if they are to succeed. Few organisations have the knowledge and expertise to go it alone. We need to work as an industry, whether engaging policymakers on legislation, or suppliers on product design. Quite apart from the adage that two heads are better than one in solving a problem, it comes down to dollars. Work together, and we can maximise the economies of scale.

Collaboration has a second dividend: it creates momentum. By working with industry peers, government and suppliers, Australia can build a world leading capability in digital water utility transformation. An ecosystem where skills in design and implementation can flourish, and where partnerships across the supply chain can deliver proven technologies and processes from which other markets around the world can benefit.

It’s a grand aspiration, which leads me to my final ingredient – boldness. Developing new solutions will inevitably involve overcoming major challenges along the way.

For example, we need to keep working on a solution to the problem of how to power digital water meters without the need for regular battery replacement. And there’s more we can do to deliver real­time water usage information through the high quality mobile app experience our customers expect.

The challenges aren’t just technical either. The explosion in data that digitised networks generate require skills that most utilities haven’t accounted for. Data integration and analytics, systems integration and telecommunications are just a few – there will be others we may not have even thought of yet.

Provided we take a bold approach, step up our collaboration, and continue to engage with customers to ensure we are focused on meeting their needs, our industry can transform at a pace like never before.

I’m confident of that, and we look forward to playing a big part in it.

Jessica Dickers is an experienced journalist, editor and content creator who is currently the Editor of Utility’s sister publication, Infrastructure. With a strong writing background, Jessica has experience in journalism, editing, print production, content marketing, event program creation, PR and editorial management. Her favourite part of her role as editor is collaborating with the sector to put together the best industry-leading content for the audience.

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