Guest Column | July 14, 2021

SWAN Corner: Unlock Data To Improve Water Distribution System Operations

By Jeff McCracken


Water distribution system infrastructures are designed to deliver drinking water to end users, but utilities are continually faced with distinct challenges to fulfill this fundamental objective. For example, these utilities improve customer service by delivering water with high pressure, but on the other hand, water conservation policies push them to minimize water distribution leaks. For this reason, water utilities invest heavily in SCADA and telemetry technologies to support operational decisions. However, unlocking historical operational data and fusing it with other data (such as billing information from AMR/AMI networks) to generate actionable insights has proven difficult.

Deploying Sensors And Smart Meters And Mining Value From Their Data

The use of digital solutions and sensors has revolutionized several industrial sectors. The water industry has the potential to benefit from these technologies. Water utilities will need to rapidly transform to accommodate future demands, such as minimizing water losses, managing pipe assets, and better engaging end users.

To do this, they’ll need to effectively deploy the right advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) — including both sensors and smart meters, as well as an overarching network layer that makes it possible to properly leverage data from those sensors and smart meters. Like other sectors, the water industry has been gradually deploying sensors in select locations, such as pump stations and water tanks. Going forward, however, water utilities will need to deploy sensor and smart meter tech more broadly across their physical infrastructure, distribution networks, and at customer endpoints. For example, using sensors to measure water pressure and water quality. So far, this has proven costly and difficult for water utilities relying on traditional SCADA infrastructure.

In addition to the challenge of deploying and connecting sensors and smart meters throughout their infrastructure and distribution networks, it can be hard to manage and make sense of all the data these components collect. Even limited sensor deployments (at pump stations and water tanks) produce a large volume of data. Once water utilities expand these deployments, they’ll have far more data being generated. To gain value from that data, water utilities will need the ability to organize, manage, visualize, and analyze it — as well as run advanced applications, like machine learning (ML), on that data.

Manage Data With A Comprehensive Overlay Network

Ultimately, water utilities are tasked with a massive digital transformation effort that will allow them to leverage a variety of disparate data sources to efficiently manage their resources.  To execute this shift, water utilities need to adopt an end-to-end, cloud-based software platform. This type of solution will make it much easier to deploy, connect and scale up data-driven components that help operate their physical layer of pipes, pumps, reservoirs, and valves.

As noted above, one of the most difficult parts of leveraging sensors and smart meters is managing and gaining value from all the data being collected by these components. To address that problem, the right AMI platform should support a comprehensive top network layer. This layer sits above both the physical infrastructure layer and the utility/customer database layer. This overarching network layer makes it possible to manage all the data they are collecting in a single place, enabling utilities to visualize, analyze, and run ML on that data. \

With these capabilities, utilities can leverage sensors and data technologies across the entirety of their water networks, including water sources, production, transmission, distribution, consumer endpoints, and even internal piping. Leveraging all this data unlocks potent new insights about water networks from top to bottom, supporting better operations through better knowledge and tighter control of the network’s extensive and complex assets.

The key here is that the network becomes cleanly layered. At the bottom are sensors, remote control, and enterprise data sources; in the middle are data collection and communications technologies; and sitting at the top is the comprehensive data management component, which provides the display, integration, and analytics capabilities. The overarching top layer benefits both the bottom and middle layers equally: Water utilities gain accurate and instant consumption data, which helps streamline the billing process and improve revenue. Overall, by getting clear insights from sensor and smart meter data, water utilities can proactively manage their distribution assets in a timely manner. 

Putting It To The Test With Real-World Use Cases

This approach can help water utilities address two key challenges: (a) improving operational visibility and (b) leak management. To use a real-world example, a utility recently had physically deployed district metering areas (DMA), but had major gaps in operational visibility. To remedy this, they implemented a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that allowed them to integrate data from several sensors (including sensors measuring both water pressure and flow rate) and gain real-time visualization of this data. In addition, the utility was able to calculate key performance indicators (KPIs) from a water balance table. Managing their data in real time, the utility was able to establish continuous feedback to monitor infrastructure performance, helping them focus resources and time on specific areas of improvement. The solution ultimately saved the utility 26 gallons per connection per day.

Another example is a water utility that leveraged DMAs to gain insights into the health of its water distribution system. By managing their network from the top down, the utility was able to gain better operational visibility and even use advanced applications like hydraulic modeling. In addition, with greater visibility into its network, the utility was able harnesses meter data to quickly identify and respond to potential leaks. With access to innovative algorithms and dashboards, the utility now holistically manages devices, software, and services to combat apparent and real water loss.

Improving Water Operations With Technology

Like energy and gas companies, water utilities face increasing operational and service challenges today. To address these challenges and streamline operations, water utilities are deploying sensors, smart meters, and other components that gather massive amounts of data in real time. For those efforts to pay off, utilities need to integrate and organize that data in a centralized location. With a cloud-based SaaS platform, these utilities can create a comprehensive top network layer to manage, visualize, and analyze all their data. In addition, they can integrate this solution into their business processes to track actions and generate meaningful results that will reduce operational costs. Having a holistic platform at the top layer helps to improve the effectiveness, longevity, and reliability of the underlying physical water network while also boosting cost efficiencies across the organization.

Jeff McCracken is the Director of Product Management for Itron.

SWAN, the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN), is the leading global hub for the smart water sector. A UK-based non-profit, SWAN brings together leading international water utilities, solution providers, academics, investors, regulators, and other industry experts to accelerate the awareness and adoption of “smart,” data-driven solutions in water and wastewater networks worldwide. Learn more at