LONDON, England – When it comes to topics such as microplastics in the ocean, disposable coffee cups or electric cars, the general population are often keen to engage and share an opinion.
With water, it’s often the opposite story. Consumers will rarely get in touch with their water utility unless there is a problem. It’s a service that operates behind the scenes and is more than often, taken for granted.
The challenge for water utilities is getting consumers to actively engage with them, aside from paying a bill.
However, the deployment of smart meters and network management software tools is generating new and relevant data to enable utilities to actively engage with consumers.
The energy market has been ahead in this area compared to water, with smart meters giving consumers a real-time insight into their gas and electricity consumption behaviour.
Although there are physical challenges with providing real-time information on water to consumers, utilities are looking at the best way to take practical information to help engage their customers.
Southern Water is in the process of starting a trial whereby existing water meters will be retrofitted with “readers” and the resulting data fed back to a home device.
“This new system will only be deployed to customers who want them,” said Ben Earl, water efficiency manager at utilitySouthern Water.
Speaking at the Smart Water Systems conference in London organised by SMi Group, he said the utility has now achieved a meter connection rate of 88 percent across its network. The initial reduction in water use across the city was 16.5 percent following installations, he said.
Despite the enviable figure, the utility, like others, is still struggling to crack the nut that is customer engagement.
Earl said: “Half of our customers are set up on a direct debit payment and use a paperless bill scheme, so the largest challenge is establishing a relationship with them.”
He added: “Customers on the breadline may be more engaged to try and save water to save money. However wealthier customers, who are less aware of their water usage and cost, this might not be the case.”
As reported by WWi recently, utilities including Affinity Water and the Northumbrian Group are looking to work with home artificial intelligence systems such as Alexa to help boost customer engagement.
Meanwhile, Paul Glass, smart metering program manager at Anglian Water Services, discussed the utility’s Newmarket Innovation Shop Window – a real-world location where new technologies and ideas are being tested.
One trial included a partnership with software company, advizzo, together with automated meter reading (AMR) technology.
By emailing across consumption data to selected households, the utility witnessed an 8 percent drop in average daily consumption (ADC) over a period of 12 months. In financial terms, this could eventually result in a £38 saving, if consumers were to fix localised plumbing leaks, Glass said.
“It’s not our data, it’s customers data and we must connect them to it,” said Glass. “We are trying to connect people with their current usage and bill.”
Meanwhile industry regulator Ofwat laid out what it wants to hear in utility business plans for the current price review for 2019, known as PR19, which will set price controls for the period 2020-2025.
David Black, senior director at Ofwat said that utilities need to shift from asset focused businesses to customer focused businesses.
“PR19 will see a shift aware from a financing model to an operational model,” he said.