Squeezing valuable drops out of smart water innovation

Squeezing valuable drops out of smart water innovation

A $4m project is attempting to deliver groundbreaking smart water metering solutions that cater for utilities in terms of readability, battery lifetime, interoperability and cost. Jonathan Spencer Jones reports.

With pressure on water supplies growing as climate patterns become more erratic and extreme, the need for monitoring of that water by utilities is growing, not only for the practical purpose of accurate billing but also for the detection of losses in the form of leaks.

Ageing infrastructure or other system failures, generally underground and out of sight, give rise to significant levels of loss, generally believed to average around one-third of a utility’s supplies – and as non-revenue water, a bottom-line loss – while even a dripping tap in a home can soon add up to a measurable loss.

While water metering has been widely implemented in many countries, and techniques such as district metering introduced to detect leaks, smart water metering is the next step in improving the monitoring and measurement of water supplies and the foundation of a smart water network.

In order to address challenges facing smart water metering in Europe, including the lack of common standards and ‘open technological platforms’ and the potential for technology/vendor lock-in, the SMART.MET project was launched in Europe in 2017 to drive the development of new technologies through a joint pre-commercial procurement.

The four-year, €4.44 million ($4.3 million) Horizon project, led by the French nonprofit water association Office International de l’Eau (OiEau) and a group of seven public water utilities from five countries, was awarded Horizon 2020 funding of €3.99 million and ran until January 31, 2022.

The group comprised Viveracqua, a consortium of 12 public water companies based in Verona, Italy, which also was the lead procurer; the Consortium for the Management of Environmental Services in the province of Badajoz, Spain; Eau de Paris and Alsace Moselle Syndicate of Water and Sanitation, France; Compagnie Intercommunale Liégeoise Des Eaux and Vivaqua, Belgium; and Budapest Waterworks from Hungary.

Also included as technical partners were: Aragon Partners and Sara Bedin from Italy; University of Limoges, France; Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua, Spain; and Aqua Publica Europea, Belgium.

Pre-commercial procurement

The aim of the project at its outset was to promote targeted research into the development of new innovative smart metering solutions that are otherwise unavailable in the market and that fully cater for the needs of the utilities in terms of readability, battery lifetime, interoperability and cost.

The joint pre-commercial procurement, a scheme promoted by the European Commission for procuring research and development services on a competitive basis, in essence involves buying R&D from several competing suppliers in parallel to compare alternative approaches and to identify the best value for money solutions that can be delivered but are not yet on the market.

The R&D process for SMART.MET was split into three phases after a state-of-art review and definition of the innovative features required – solution exploration and design, prototyping and field testing, with the number of competing R&D providers being reduced over the phases.

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SMART.MET solutions

Following a tendering process, the first R&D phase was awarded to four operators: a consortium comprising Dynamic Consulting, Abering Contadores de Agua and Gomez Group Metering from Spain; Telereading from Italy; Hydroko NV from Belgium; and Fast S.P.A. from Italy.

From these, the solutions from Telereading and Hydroko were eventually selected for the field testing, with 1,500 prototypes in the five countries.

Telereading’s solution was focussed on the development of a new generation smart meter equipped with communication modules, sensor and actuators to enable real-time and minute monitoring of consumption and water quality along with an Intelligent Management System for data collection and analytics for consumption monitoring, leak detection and water supply optimisation, among other use cases.

A key focus was on the development of a ‘smart communication module’ as a redundant multi-protocol communication system for data exchange between the smart meters and the Intelligent Management System, selecting in real-time the best radio link in terms of robustness and power consumption.

Hydroko’s solution was focussed on the integration into a single unit of a standard WM-BUS water meter and a remote controlled smart valve made out of a homogenous, long-lifetime material.

Development goals highlighted were 16-year battery lifetime, hourly data granularity, 1-day data latency and plug & play functionality, along with a cloud based AMI platform based on ‘privacy by design’ for meter management and operation of the remotely controlled valve.

The test locations – in the regions of Sélestat, France; Vicenza, Italy; Zafra, Spain; Liége and Herstal, Belgium; and Budapest, Hungary – were selected to offer a diversity of urban, rural and mixed environments.

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Tangible innovation

The field testing was aimed to verify to what extent the prototypes’ main features meet the functional and performance requirements defined in the precommercial procurement.

According to the project findings, SMART.MET has resulted in tangible innovation related to the integration of advanced features to achieve a high level of smart metering data collection.

In particular, this includes:
• More accurate detection of reverse flow with an automatic valve;
• More accurate detection of leakage behind the meter, on the users’ side;
• Stable NB-IOT/SIGFOX communication in real life conditions, including in rural areas or in difficult conditions such as a cellar or basement garage;
• High level of performance on the data collection platform.

The water utilities have also reported that their participation in the pre-commercial procurement process enabled them to increase their technical know-how on smart meters, communication networks and the required functionalities that will allow them to source the appropriate solutions to their needs and to better negotiate possible contracts with providers.

The cooperation also helped them to improve their understanding of their own internal operational procedures, ‘digital readiness’ and contextual specificities.

At the same time, the participating technology companies had the opportunity to better understand the needs of their customers and to develop a new generation of smart meters, which they also have been able to start marketing more broadly. In addition, new partnerships were facilitated with other companies and research organisations.

On the other side of the coin, among the challenges that arose was the COVID-19 outbreak response – with the travel restrictions requiring the field test deployments to be carried out by the water operators rather than the providers, and safety rules slowing them down.

Another was the coming into force of the EU’s GDPR, which required specific agreements with each of the participating households but which also was converted into a communication and awareness campaign opportunity.

Eric Mino, the project’s coordinator on behalf of OiEau, reports that the water utilities involved in the real-life testing phase have been examining the option to extend the test duration of the solutions developed by the contractors to gain additional knowledge on them and possibly to launch a further public procurement for innovation.

“Beyond the project partners, the results have been promoted widely among European water utilities facing similar challenges,” comments Mino.

“We also foresee that some of the data collected can be aggregated and opened for further exploitation in digital twins and smart cities applications.”

Article originally appeared in The Guide 2022-2023.