IoT in water and wastewater management is a drop in the ocean

August 20, 2016 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Uncategorized

IoT in water and wastewater management is a drop in the ocean




Regulation could force the traditionally conservative and risk-averse water treatment sector to embrace internet of things solutions, says Chris Wheal.

IoT providers have struggled to break into a sector that relies on large-scale, extended-lifespan capital projects using traditional automation and control electronics provided by firms on approved supplier lists.

Water companies that have regulated, cost-plus pricing can run plants on full power even at low capacity, with little incentive to reduce costs or improve efficiency. They also fear catastrophic mistakes, such as flooding or leaks of sewage, so prefer to run expensively at overcapacity to be on the safe side.

But lawmakers could strongarm water firms to retro-fit IoT to meet new requirements or to provide more cost-effective services in markets newly opened to competition.

Out with the old

Laurie Reynolds spent 30 years with Thames Water and now runs a consultancy called Aquamatix. He says:

“We’d have project A and project B that were identical treatment plants but they’d end up with completely different automation software even though we had specified, say, Rockwell as the technology platform. Because they were being delivered by two different system integrators they’d deliver two different systems and there’d be no scope to reuse either.

“The London tunnel ring main and London control engineering centre was the peak, when we had a major in-house team, but even then a lot was outsourced and the outsourcing is only as good as the specification. When I asked how long a pump had been running and how much it had pumped, that information was not available because it had not been specified as it was not necessary for the automation process. But when you come to manage it, operationally, and want to maintain it on its duty cycle or its condition rather than because the manual says now is the time to grease it, it is incredibly difficult.”

In with the new

Reynolds reckons a change in 2017 to give 1.4 million large non-domestic water users access to a free market of water providers could be the boost the industry needs.

With just a 2.6 per cent margin on the wholesale price of water, he expects competing firms to demonstrate they can offer customers savings in terms of reduced water usage and better waste water management.

He also reckons showing that better water management reduces electricity and energy costs will further make firms competitive and attractive. The potential double-whammy savings of using less water and less energy could be huge.

He points out: “An NHS hospital can be as complex as a small town.”

Spanish practices

Implementing IoT for water and wastewater in a small town is exactly what four-year-old Spanish IoT start-up IoTSens has done in Castellón, near Valencia.

IoTSens had the advantage of being a start-up within the Gimeno Group, which had run a traditional water business for more than 100 years. But Ignacio Llopis, head of business development, says that, even then, convincing the conservative, traditional business to try IoT solutions was hard work. “They have the mentality of ‘I am comfortable with what I have’, and it is seen as risky to change,” he says.

New laws to tackle flooding was the fillip. Just five years into a 10-year contract, the new demands for better information and management of flood risks meant data became king. IoTSens still had to fit its ultrasound sensors for free to convince its sister firm the system would work.

Now the firm can monitor the flow, fill capacity and temperature for each pipeline, pump and other part of the system. Data on rainfall and predicted incoming waste water all feed in and can trigger warnings that require action to avoid floods from overflows.

Middle East adoption

IoTSens has since gone on to sell its technology outside Gimeno and outside Spain. It has a contract with the Saudi royal family and minister for water to monitor and report on water usage in 25 of the most important urban areas in Saudi.

The government has traditionally paid 90 per cent of citizens’ water bills, but reduced revenue from lower world oil prices are forcing a rethink. It has already cut the subsidy to 80 per cent and wants to get citizens to cut water usage.

IoTSens’ sensors report on household usage down to which device or activity uses the most water – is it the shower or the washing machine? – with an aim both to educate people to use less and to develop more water-efficient products.

US challenges

Mike Fahrion is VP for IoT technologies with US firm Advantech. It has retrofitted its battery-powered nodes and gateway units to a water system for Illinois city South Beloit.

Each node has a potential 300m outdoor range and the firm likes to have each node in sight of at least two others about 200m away. That way each chooses the most effective route to send its data, piggy-backing from one node to the next to the gateway, so even if the path to one neighbouring node is blocked the signal will get through.

IoT World Europe

Communication is via 802.15.4E wifi with nodes all set to communicate at the same time, giving battery life measured in years. Currently a gateway can interact with 32 nodes but that is about to rise to 100. Each node can have between two and four sensors.

Energy bill savings

Fahrion says it’s hard in the US to break into the market as most operations managers in the major firms want to contract with a total solutions providers and they are already tied in with the big name automation firms.

“Our best hope is when someone from IT in involved because they buy from different vendors and have different procurement requirements to the operations guys,” he says.

One potential is firms bidding for city utility contracts that get a share of any savings. Fahrion says: “If they can lower energy bills they can share the savings with the municipality. They want to know how, why and where they are using energy so they can reduce usage. They need IoT.”

Wet behind the ears

The UK water sector, like the rest of the world it seems, is far from awash with IoT expertise or interest. Trade body Water UK was unable to put forward anyone to speak about IoT.

Membership group British Water – with the strapline “expertise worldwide” – only established a technical committee to look at data and analytics in July 2016 and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management has just one IoT item on is website, again from July this year.

It is clear, IoT has yet to make a splash.