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Big prizes await the water sector revolutionaries

Tim Edwards

Recent news of divining rods being used to locate leaks in the water network paint an image of an industry that is old-fashioned and devoid of innovation.

The good news for the sector, and ultimately customers, is that change is afoot, with new digital tools including machine learning holding the potential to transform the construction and maintenance of our networks.

This impetus is being spearheaded by regulator Ofwat, which has set out a robust methodology for driving change as part of the upcoming price review period: PR19.

Ofwat has made clear it wants to see water companies deliver best value for customers by delivering against four criteria: customer service, network resilience, affordability and innovation.

To a large degree, it is the fourth of those that has the ability to deliver the first three. By looking to new tools, methods and processes, we can build a better network which brings value for money and delivers for customers.

The job for the water companies now is to set out their own responses to PR19. The role of the construction industry and the supply chain is to bring forward fresh and innovative thinking that will support these strategies.

Solving water leakage

One of the biggest areas where digital tools will be a game-changer is around leakage. Currently, it is estimated that 3.1bn litres of water are lost every day in England and Wales, approximately 130 litres per household. But the nature of the network makes dealing with the problem incredibly challenging.

“We’re predicting water leakage costs could be almost halved through more effective use of machine learning”

Much of our infrastructure predates modern planning, design standards and record-keeping, meaning that even the most basic of tasks – identifying locations, leaks and pipelines – can waste time, money and opportunities to proactively, rather than reactively, manage water assets.

The start of a solution lies in amassing data which can be used to build a picture of the network that does not exist yet. By combining information on historic leakage data with the age, location, material and geography of an asset, we can start to understand how, why and where leaks occur, acting quickly when needed, or even pre-emptively.

We then need to combine this mass of information with our own expertise to devise platforms that can analyse information quickly and model the behaviour of our networks.

It can cost water companies more than £10m a year in workforce resource alone to investigate leakage. Yet with tools we have developed with our technology partner Dootrix, using Microsoft’s Azure platform, we predict this cost could be almost halved through more effective use of machine learning to identify leaks quicker and fix them more efficiently.

Moreover, that is before taking into account the cost of disruption and loss of the water itself, making leakage reduction a very big prize indeed.

Machine learning is just the start

The industry was already identifying this opportunity even before PR19, with several providers including Northumbrian Water and Anglian Water holding hackathons and innovation events, where cross-industry teams can share data and come up with new ideas.

To meet the Ofwat challenge, we now need to see even greater emphasis on this kind of approach.

The growth of smartphone and internet-of-things technologies now enables data-gathering on a scale that would have been financially and technically impossible just five years ago. This will not only change the way asset owners provide their services to their customers, but will also fundamentally change the commercial models and capabilities of the underlying supply chains.

Meanwhile, the progression of blockchain’s distributed ledger technology in the water industry offers interesting opportunities to take new approaches to the challenges of network resilience, affordability and a competitive water retail market. It is also a key enabler for smart contracts between asset owners and forward-thinking service providers.

PR19 provides the welcome framework that will foster this kind of innovation – not only for the next five years, but ultimately laying the foundations for a truly innovative and modern water network.

Tim Edwards is associate director at Clancy Docwra

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