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Water is a precious resource that sustains life and drives economic development and responsibility today’s Water and Wastewater utilities take quite seriously. One of the most daunting challenges they face is managing non-revenue water (NRW).
NRW – the water running through a utility’s pipes but is never paid for – can be substantially reduced by embracing today’s digital transformation. The convergence of know-how, technology, data analytics, and infrastructure management around a digital governance process can unleash remarkable efficiency gains.
Globally, NRW equates to 126 billion cubic meters annually. Leaks, inefficient infrastructure, and poor water management practices are the main reasons for NRW. This impact isn’t limited to water resource shortages — in distribution systems; it can result in significant wasted energy and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) derived from supply and treatment costs. According to IWA, energy loss due to NRW in global distribution networks ranges from an estimated 0.3 kWh/m3 to 1 kWh/m3, representing 20-50% of the total energy consumed for pumping, treatment, and distribution. CO2 emissions associated with NRW can range from an estimated 0.05 kgCO2/m³ to 0.3 kgCO2/m³ of water produced and distributed, depending on the specific energy mix and efficiency of the water utility.
Digital enablers for NRW reduction
Today, advances in technology, such as the cloud, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), big data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and digital twin empower water utilities with mechanisms and strategies to help address NRW, including:
- Real-time monitoring and leak detection – Meters, sensors, and pressure gauges provide real-time water flow, pressure, and consumption data. Advanced analytics and algorithms analyze this data to detect leakage patterns, while ML and data modeling techniques can leak locations more accurately for more targeted repairs and minimized water loss.
- Pressure management – Because excessive pressure can lead to burst pipes and increased leakage, actively monitoring and controlling pressure levels can reduce the likelihood of leaks. Digital tools can optimize pressure in the water distribution network, ensuring it remains within the desired range.
- Predictive maintenance – Digitalization allows predictive maintenance strategies based on data analysis and algorithms. By monitoring parameters like flow rates, pressure changes, and equipment performance, utilities can better anticipate maintenance needs and proactively address potential issues before they result in significant leaks.
- Asset management – Digital platforms can facilitate comprehensive asset management, providing utilities with an overview of their infrastructure, including pipes, valves, and meters. This helps identify aging or deteriorating assets that may contribute to leakage. Utilities can mitigate the risk of leaks by prioritizing maintenance and replacement efforts and reducing NRW.
- Breaking down organizational silos – Digitalization enables more effective data sharing and integration capabilities among cross-functional departments in the utility, such as engineering, operations, maintenance, and customer service. This collaboration drives more coordinated planning and implementation of NRW reduction initiatives, shared accountability, and continuous improvement.
- Data-driven decision-making – The abundance of data collected through digital systems and organizational silos elimination enables utilities to make data-driven decisions like infrastructure investments, repair prioritization, and resource allocation.
Overcoming barriers to adopting digital NRW management
There are four key barriers to digital adoption in water utilities, particularly in NRW management:
- Difficulty guaranteeing the dependability and precision of the gathered data. Technical problems, sensor malfunctioning, or errors in the data interpretation can result in incorrect identification of leaks or failure to detect them. Therefore, if we rely solely on digital systems without human verification or physical inspections, we can diminish the effectiveness of efforts to reduce NRW.
- Breaking down organizational silos can be complex and time-consuming. It also requires substantial investments in infrastructure, software, and maintenance. Finding qualified personnel to handle the technology, ensuring interoperability with existing systems, and managing the transition process can limit the immediate benefits. However, motivated teams, continuous improvements, and the right digital partnership can help the organization act as a single entity.
- Cybersecurity. Daily, we perform hundreds of digital transactions, communications, etc., without questioning their integrity and security. Cybersecurity is taken for granted because of the trust built by the digital and technology providers involved. The same can be true of the water sector digitization. However, digital adoption is hindered by the increasing exposure water utilities face when connecting their IT and OT systems and the resulting cyberthreats that could compromise the water supply in any given municipality.
- Human replacement. The tendency to associate digital transformation with human replacement is common but untrue. Digital systems provide valuable data, but human judgment and decision-making remain crucial in NRW reduction strategies. Data interpretation, repair prioritization, and strategic planning all rely on the expertise and experience of human utility personnel. Digitalization is here to enable, not to replace.
How to unleash digital transformation potential
Realizing the power of a digital transformation requires the right balance between humans and technology. It is not enough to recognize the benefits and limitations of digitalization; this knowledge must be translated into actions by utilities, stakeholders, and policymakers. To impact NRW reduction, water utilities must embrace digital transformation as a strategic priority by:
- Investing in digital infrastructure to implement advanced monitoring systems, data analytics platforms, and sensor networks that enable real-time monitoring and accurate leak detection to detect leaks and prevent water loss promptly.
- Fostering collaboration with regular knowledge sharing, joint decision-making, and harnessing collective expertise across departments.
- Empowering workers to develop the right skills to leverage the potential of digital solutions by investing in training programs to enhance their capabilities in data analysis, system maintenance, and digital literacy.
- Advocating for supportive policies incentivizing and accelerating digital transformation in water utilities by engaging with policymakers.
- Adapting utility procurement processes to new business models and partnerships instead of tendering and procuring digital technology as if it were concrete and pipes.
- Embracing continuous improvement by regularly evaluating the effectiveness of digital solutions. Embrace feedback loops, monitor performance metrics, and adapt to emerging technologies and best practices.
Digital NRW in action
Concerns and hesitations about moving away from the comfort zone are understandable. However, being part of a digital partner for sustainability and efficiency for the last 20 years, I have observed how leading water utilities, like Anglian Water, overcame these fears by partnering with Schneider Electric to provide the expertise and digital know-how. We helped them connect over 300 data sources, equating to 38,000km of water network to be visualized and managed via a single platform. They realized a 5% cost reduction in outsourced leak detection and a 90% time reduction in checking leakage calculation, identifying flow meter faults, and planning leak survey deployment. Since 2015, they have been saving 10 million liters per day.
My experience with other customers, like Padania Acque, has been very similar. An integrated view of water utility operations allowed digitization to bring stellar results for NRW and financial gains (22% increase in EBITDA over 3 years), which can fuel further actions to invest in NRW strategies and technologies.
Let’s work together to ensure sustainable water management, conserve precious resources, and secure a better future for future generations. To learn more, visit our Water and Wastewater solutions page.