From The Editor | December 2, 2015

Connecting To The Future: Where Will Digitally Linked Devices Take The Water Industry?

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

The future of interconnected devices and data acquisition in the water industry will be described differently depending on who you ask. You may hear talk of an emerging “smart grid” in the sector. Maybe you’ve heard of a tomorrow dependent on the Internet of Things (IoT). Whatever they choose to call it, advocates will agree: a network of digitally connected devices is emerging, which will pool data together and funnel it to a single source, painting a more complete picture of how water is used. And soon, it will be everywhere.

There is consensus about where this future starts. As many utilities already know, the first place to collect data on water use is through meters. Developments in metering technology have ushered in the era of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and Automatic Meter Reading (AMR). Those that utilize these systems capture massive amounts of ratepayer data and store them on management software and databases.

According to Susie McMullen, president of technology and engineering consultants TritonAMI, the other acronyms necessary for a total “smart grid” — her preferred term — are likely already in place as well. McMullen says that an ideal smart grid consists of connected AMI, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, work order management systems (WOMS), and customer information systems (CIS).

Basically, a smart grid will utilize any utility systems that produce, measure, and monitor data. A utility with all of these systems in place and connected through a digital network would be able to collect and analyze transaction amounts, service histories on each piece of equipment, water quality and supply levels, and customer satisfaction levels in one place, leveraging it all to become more efficient and effective.

“Integrating all of the utility’s data into one common database would improve maintenance efficiencies… because the system could constantly monitor and measure, notifying the maintenance department immediately when an abnormal occurrence happens,” said McMullen.

The concept of integrated devices may be familiar to some by a different name. All this talk of interconnectivity and digital data exchange fits the description of IoT, a concept that began building momentum at the turn of the century. IoT acolytes describe its future in the water industry in similar terms as McMullen does the smart grid, but see it utilized differently.

“In an IoT network, AMI is just one potential application,” said Hardy Schmidbauer, the vice chairman of the marketing committee for the LoRa Alliance, a group of businesses which advocates for a standardized low–power, wide-area network (LPWAN). “An IoT network allows water utilities to connect more things — groundwater wells, irrigation control, sensors for agriculture, smart buildings, and pollution sensors — to optimize the entire ecosystem, not just monitor water usage.”

When Schmidbauer acknowledges the cost hurdles that prevent many utilities from investing in an AMI network, he does so to note that IoT connectivity through the type of network he advocates can be achieved without infrastructure additions and with the potential to optimize resources. As an example, he cited 10 to 15 percent water usage reduction courtesy of smart sensors used for precision farming.

While McMullen’s smart grid focus is on ways that utilities can increase efficiency and better serve ratepayers, Schmidbauer’s ideal IoT network would expand through an entire smart city. Their terminology and goals may be different, but the two are describing the same basic vision. Maybe our future will be built on a smart grid that connects the different data systems utilized by a utility. Or maybe on an IoT network that links sensors throughout an ecosystem. In fact, there’s no reason that as more of the industry’s tools are digitally equipped, it won’t be both.