How Water-monitoring Software and Cloud-based Storage Help Boost Utilities’ Bottom Lines

Jan. 30, 2018

Maynilad Water Services is the largest private water provider in the Philippines, serving a population of 9 million people in the western portion of Manila. The system faced a challenge, though: It needed to make better, and faster decisions on which pipes needed immediate maintenance, which leaks needed to be repaired first, and which meters needed to be replaced.

Maynilad had plenty of data it could turn to in order to help make these decisions. But unfortunately, this data was spread throughout the utility. Water utility workers in the billing department had key data. So did those working in the distribution department. But these numbers were rarely shared. Maynilad needed all its data stored in one, easy-to-access location.

That’s where OSIsoft and its PI System water-monitoring software came in. Maynilad now extracts data from its business department and places the numbers into its Data Warehouse. It then uses OSIsoft’s PI System to collect and download field data—numbers on everything from the amount of water customers are currently consuming to the amount of pressure flowing throughout the system.

Maynilad officials are calling this new system FIELD MOUS, Field Monitoring User System. With this system, Maynilad utility managers can now instantly view the amount of water pressure and flow along its water lines, monitor the status of reservoirs and pumping stations, and receive constant information from its water treatment plant.

The system also sends Maynilad alerts when water pressure suddenly drops or surges, when water flow changes, or when end-users’ consumption deviates from traditional patterns.

The results have been impressive. Maynilad reports that since launching FIELD MOUS, annual water loss has dropped by 27.1%. The utility has recovered 640 million liters of treated water that it otherwise would have lost.

Maynilad is an example of a trend among water utilities. More of them are relying on the combination of water-monitoring software and cloud-based data storage to better track their treated water as it moves through their distribution systems.

This technology is key for utilities that hope to reduce the amount of water that leaks out of their systems each year. It’s also an important tool for boosting the accuracy of water bills, making sure that end-users are charged fairly for the water that they are consuming.

Jeff Lipton, director of marketing at San Francisco’s WaterSmart Software, says that the challenge of non-revenue water is only growing for utilities. While it’s difficult to determine a specific number, Lipton says that about 20% of the water produced, treated, and distributed by utilities is lost in some way.

That’s a huge annual loss for water utilities, and one that is costing them significant dollars.

There are several reasons for this non-revenue water. Customers might tamper with meters so that they don’t have to pay their fair share for the water they are consuming. Some meters are simply so old that they don’t correctly measure the amount of treated water flowing to customers. Other utilities struggle with collecting accurate data, so they don’t charge enough for the water they deliver.

Then there are leaks. This is by far the biggest source of non-revenue water, Lipton says.

“This is a huge problem, and it’s only getting worse,” says Lipton. “This is mostly because the distribution systems throughout the country are 100 years old or more, and they were designed for 50- or 75-year lifespans. We are not sufficiently investing in rehabilitating the water infrastructure. It will continue to get worse unless we fill in that investment gap.”

Lipton points to a 2008 EPA study stating that utilities would need to invest about $400 billion over the following 20 years to rejuvenate the country’s aging water distribution systems. Since that study, that $400 billion number has certainly risen, Lipton says.

“It is going to take a huge amount of capital to repair the aging systems,” he says. “We are all going to have to pay for it one way or another.”

WaterSmart’s modular portal

Manuel Parra, general manager for Smart Water Solutions at Schneider Electric, says that every water utility faces its own issues when it comes to water loss. Some utilities are bedeviled by leaks in their pipes. Others struggle with meters that aren’t accurately recording the amount of water pumped through their systems.

Parra says that both leaks and inaccurate metering cause serious problems for utilities: Leaks, of course, result in the physical loss of treated water. Utilities spend money treating this water. That is money wasted when this water leaks out of the system. Inaccurate meters further hurt the bottom lines of utilities. Again, utilities spend money on treated water, but they don’t receive the full financial benefit of this service when meters don’t accurately charge end-users.

“With leaks, we are touching on water scarcity issues,” says Parra. “The amount of water available for distribution is reduced. On the other side, when we look at commercial losses thanks to inaccurate meters, we are touching on the other big issue for utilities, the difficulties of money. They are losing money. They are losing access to the capital they need to attack that aging infrastructure that these utilities are all dealing with.”

Fortunately, utilities do have some tools on which they can rely to battle water loss. As an example, WaterSmart offers its own cloud-based software program that utilities can use to analyze water-consumption data. Utility officials can rely on WaterSmart’s tools to identify possible trouble spots in their distribution systems, areas where big spikes in consumption indicate either leaks or meter failures.

Thanks to this analysis, utility officials can more quickly identify problems. This is important if WaterSmart’s reports identify a possible leak. Alerted to the leak early enough, utility officials can send crews to repair the leak before it grows into a bigger problem. And by fixing the leak quickly, these crews will shut off a source of water loss in the system, saving the utility significant future dollars.

WaterSmart’s solution is one example of the powerful combination of software and cloud storage that is making it far easier for utilities today to monitor the flow of water through their systems. And when it’s easy to monitor this flow, it’s also easier for utilities to find possible sources of non-revenue water faster.

“It’s about looking for patterns of consumption,” says Lipton. “By comparing those patterns across a range of end-users, you can see where there are discrepancies. Then you can investigate those to see if they are the result of leaks or other problems.”

OSIsoft makes one product, the PI System. Utility managers can use it to find leaks faster and then schedule repairs to those parts of their infrastructure that most need them.

The PI System gathers and stores data from a utility’s SCADA systems, meters, manual data, and sensors. Armed with this information, utility managers can quickly spot deviations from typical water-consumption numbers. This might be a sign of a leak.

Gary Wong, principal of global water industry with OSIsoft, says that this water-monitoring software can save utilities plenty of money, both in lost water and in labor, as they schedule crews more effectively to tackle leaks before they grow into even larger problems.

“We have customers who can use our data to find a leak in two minutes,” says Wong.

The software operates in real time, with utilities receiving signals and information sometimes every 30 seconds, Wong says. If the pressure in a system drops or if water flow goes up past a set percentage, the software will instantly notify the utility.

Why, then, aren’t even more utilities signing on for water-monitoring software? Parra says that while there are plenty of solutions for utilities—everything from water-monitoring software to acoustic leak detection services—there is no one silver bullet that can solve every water-loss issue that utilities face.

This means that utilities must be pro-active in seeking out a range of solutions that can help them lower non-revenue water.

“The way we approach this is by trying to touch on all the different areas you can touch on,” says Parra. “We focus on active leak control, on better managing repair crews, on repairing and replacing pipes, reducing the physical loss of water, and pressure management. From our perspective, the solution we should provide needs to touch on one or more of those areas.”

Mark Moreau, chief executive officer of Boston-based Utility Cloud, which provides operations-management software, says that utilities are increasingly turning to companies such as his to better schedule maintenance work and inspections of their infrastructure.

Moreau says that operations-management software gives utility officials the tools they need to organize the inspections of their hardware, pump stations, and tanks to best understand which of their equipment needs immediate maintenance. This helps prevent future leaks and, when leaks are discovered, boosts the odds that crew members will get to them before they grow into bigger problems.

“Our goal is to help utilities better determine how to spend their money,” says Moreau. “They can use our software to better prioritize.”

State and federal governments are helping to fuel this trend, Moreau says. Many of them are providing utilities with grants and financial incentives to turn to automated systems designed to improve their maintenance efficiency, he says. Government agencies realize that this is one way to combat an aging infrastructure.

An installation for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

The aging utility workforce is also playing a role in leading more utilities to operations management software. Many older utility workers are retiring. Younger professionals are replacing them. And Moreau says that these younger workers are more comfortable with operations management software.

“A lot of these utilities still do work on paper,” says Moreau. “Tracking this data is cumbersome and inefficient. As that aging workforce is retiring, we are getting more inquiries from younger workers who are more interested in streamlining and making their water systems more efficient.”

Using Utility Cloud’s system, utility workers can access electronic maps displaying their underground infrastructure. The map will list which pipes crews have recently surveyed and which ones need maintenance or repair work. With this information, they can schedule repairs to the infrastructure that most needs it.

“We see the problem of leaks and lost water getting worse for those utilities that are not using asset-management software,” says Moreau. “Those who are using these platforms are seeing a decrease in leaks. If they are taking a proactive approach, they can decrease the amount of water loss in their systems.”

Lipton says that when WaterSmart deploys its software, the software gathers water consumption data. WaterSmart also receives property data from the assessor’s office, as well as census and climate data. WaterSmart can estimate the number of occupants in a specific home or business given that the size of that home or business is available from public records.

WaterSmart knows what the average water consumption looks like in a certain size home or business. The software compares the actual consumption for a residence or business to similar dwellings. If the software detects a dramatic variance, this could indicate a problem, Lipton says.

“There are different reasons why a discrepancy might occur,” says Lipton. “Many times, though, it is an actual problem. We alert the utilities to these problems, and they can then prioritize these issues. They can address them in whatever sequence they think is best.”

Lipton says that WaterSmart’s software can also alert homeowners if it discovers irregular use from them. Sudden spikes in water use in residential homes can mean anything from a leak to a hose that’s been left on for days.

“It could be dishwashers, washing machines, a broken pipe,” says Lipton. “We help homeowners walk through a process and identify what is causing their unusual consumption.”

A screen shot showing an area impacted by a pipe break

This kind of contact between a utility and its end-users is beneficial to everyone involved, Lipton says. The end-users identify a leak or other cause of water use that’s too high. The utility is left with a satisfied customer. And it also might not have to roll utility trucks to that customer’s house to find the source of the unusual water consumption on its own, Lipton says.

Schneider’s Smart Water suite of programs allow utility customers to search their distribution network for areas that pose a higher risk for water loss, Parra says. Armed with this information, they can deploy their field workers to these specific areas.

“That’s better than just having them do their rounds,” says Parra. “When they know the at-risk areas, utilities can maximize the time crews spend in the field.”

Utilities can use Schneider’s software to optimize the routes that crews take to trouble spots, saving them money in fuel and labor costs. They can use the same software to track water pressure throughout their distribution systems. Parra says they can then make sure they are providing enough pressure to deliver water efficiently throughout their systems, but that they are not producing more pressure than needed.

A screenshot of what a pump or utility display
might look like. Utilities are able to customize their own dashboards to show different metrics.

This last part is important: The higher the pressure, the higher the risk of a leak.

“We get information into the system,” says Parra. “Based on the calculations we have, we are able to send information to the control team that is responsible for all the water and leak detection duties at a utility. We generate the intelligence that these teams can use to identify possible leaks and prevent future ones.”

The good news is that a growing number of utilities, seeing so many benefits, are embracing the combination of cloud services and water-monitoring software.

It can take water utilities time to adopt new technologies, Lipton says. There’s a good reason for this: Water utilities are averse to risk. They are providing a critical service, the delivery of clean, quality water. Utility officials must make sure that reliability and water quality are their top priorities, even ahead of reducing leaks and non-revenue water.

San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s control room

“So they are cautious when adopting new technologies,” says Lipton. “That being said, utilities are beginning to recognize that the customer, the end-user, is always connected. Everyone has a mobile device. They can get real-time data from almost every other provider in their life. The water systems have been behind in providing this level of granularity to their customers.”

And while customers are savvier when it comes to data and tech, utilities are more often relying on automated meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems to gather huge amounts of consumption data.

“Those capabilities are driving the adoption of new technology that can help utilities find leaks, resolve them, and notify customers through text alerts in real time,” says Lipton. “That is all becoming more accepted by the industry and customers.”

Like many providers in this space, WaterSmart’s technology resides in the cloud. This provides its own benefits to utilities.

Because WaterSmart’s data is cloud-based, utilities don’t have to maintain any infrastructure of their own to access it. They don’t have to buy servers, Lipton says. They only need a web browser and an internet connection to access whatever data WaterSmart uncovers about their water usage patterns.

Relying on the cloud also allows WaterSmart technicians to make any updates or improvements to their software available to its utility customers immediately, Lipton says.

“As we make updates, those capabilities become available to everyone who subscribes to the system,” he says. “We are working in an environment that is rapidly evolving. We are seeing new capabilities on a regular basis at a low cost. That is the wave of the future.”

Even more important, utility officials can rely on water monitoring software to prevent future leaks. Schneider’s Smart Water system, for instance, can tackle predictive analysis, Parra says. The software analyzes the amount of pressure flowing through a utility’s distribution system. It can then identify if the current pressure rates might cause a leak in the next 48 hours.

If the system determines that pressures are high enough to possibly cause such a leak, the system sends users an alert.

“They can then act before there is a problem,” says Parra. “The goal is to avoid any water-main breaks. Control systems today are mostly reactive. They react to problems that have already happened. We are taking it to the next level and offering utilities a way to be more proactive.”

Parra says that utilities have a mixed record when it comes to being more proactive when tackling water-loss and non-revenue water. He says that more utilities do rely on data today to make decisions. This is a trend that is slowly growing, he says.

But the water industry also remains a conservative one, Parra says. Utility officials are willing to make changes. They just make them at a slower pace.

This isn’t necessarily an unreasonable approach. After all, the people making decisions at water utilities have plenty to consider before making any changes, Parra says.

“The decisions they make can have a big impact,” says Parra. “Health is the fundamental goal for a utility. Utility managers, then, have some concerns about automating their systems, about losing some control. At the end of the day, utilities have one goal, to provide safe and reliable water. Safety is the top priority.”

Because of this, water officials are sometimes leery, too, of storing too much information in the cloud, Parra says. He says that more utilities are embracing the cloud for storing the data of non-critical operations, everything from customer information systems to financial systems and monitoring systems that gather data from the field.

But utilities are not ready to rely on the cloud for systems that monitor their critical infrastructure and delivery systems, Parra says.

“That is still a concern for them,” says Parra. “They don’t want to have everything in one place. What if someone hacks into the system? That is out of their control. What if someone turns on a pump and creates an overflow issue? Then you might end up serving dirty water to customers. Those operations, those critical systems, remain within the boundaries of the utility. Everything besides that? Utility managers have no issue moving them into the cloud.”

Water monitoring software can help with other issues that utilities face, too. Wong says that utilities spend plenty of dollars each year on the energy needed to treat and distribute water to their customers. Utility managers can rely on their software to find inefficiencies in their delivery systems that, if resolved, will reduce their energy costs.

“They can figure out the least expensive ways to pump water,” says Wong. “Pumping the most water during off-peak times would be ideal. The goal is to pump and treat water during those off-peak times while still meeting the demand for water for all of their customers.”

As an example, Wong points to the Moulton Niguel Water District, a district that serves more than 170,000 customers in Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo, and Dana Point in California. Since the district began working with OSIsoft’s PI System software, it has reduced its energy costs 10 to 15% each year, Wong says.

“That is typical of what we see,” he says. “We see anywhere from a low of a reduction of 6% in energy costs for a utility that is already active in their energy management to savings as high as 15% a year.”

Wong says that he expects more utilities to turn to water-management software to reduce their annual water loss, preserve their infrastructure, and reduce the other costs associated with delivering clean drinking water.

“Utilities have to set the priorities,” he says. “They know that being on the front page because there’s a sinkhole isn’t good. They are looking for tools to guarantee that they won’t have those type of big leaks that cause such serious problems. The technology is there for utilities. They just have to use it.” 

About the Author

Dan Rafter

Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.