Smart water: Putting data to work

The concept of ‘smart water’ really isn’t as weighty and complicated as it sounds. At its core, it’s about using data to make better decisions — and you’re probably already practicing some form of it.

Nov 1st, 2018

Our feature article this month dives into the topic of smart water, a phrase that is just as likely to elicit excitement as it is eye rolls. It’s not that the concept doesn’t hold promise for the water industry; quite the opposite. But the term ‘smart water’ has been tossed around so nonchalantly and applied so widely that, for many, its meaning has become muddled and the path to achieve it unclear.

The good news is that the concept of ‘smart water’ really isn’t as weighty and complicated as it sounds. At its core, it’s about using data to make better decisions — and you’re probably already practicing some form of it. SCADA and automation are common examples.

“Those to me are the most traditional areas,” Esteban Azagra, an asset management specialist with Arcadis, told me during a recent interview. “But I do believe there is more exciting stuff coming.”

Asset management expert Esteban Azagra talks with Angela Godwin about smart water.

That “exciting stuff” has to do with tools that allow utilities to make better use of data to optimize operations and, ultimately, save money. This has been a struggle for the water industry, he noted, which is sort of ironic. “We have SCADA, we capture lots of data, but putting it to work has not been that easy.”

Azagra is confident, though, that things are about to change. “I think people are realizing that data is actually a key asset and a lot of people are saying, ‘Time out. Let’s put that data to work, treat it as an asset.’”

Inexpensive business analytics tools are now making it easy for utilities to tap into myriad data sources without having to make a huge project out of consolidating it, he said. They allow you to spot patterns that you might not notice otherwise.

Azagra cited the city of Akron, Ohio, as a good example. The utility was seeing an increase in operational expenses stemming from chemical use. “Using relatively low-cost business analytics tools, they looked at how is the chemical usage was really impacting the water quality. They were able to fine tune the use of chemicals and in the last five years they’ve lowered the cost by 5 to 10 percent per year.”

Another example, Severn Trent in the UK, used analytical tools to improve capital investment decisions. “They were able to save around $65 million by optimizing capital investment with the help of these tools,” he noted.

A key takeaway, Azagra said, is to start small. “Don’t try to get everything perfect,” he advised. Work with the data you have and leverage available, inexpensive business analytics tools to better use and mine that data. These tools are out there, he said. “Put them to work!”

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