Smart water – Automating a network of sensors

In August 2010, water services supplier Veolia Water had a problem with a golf course in Surrey.

The golf course operator was intermittently soaking the ground to keep it from drying out in the hot weather. To stop this from affecting other customers nearby, Veolia had to increase the water pressure in the pipes.

However, when the golf course turned off its taps, the water infrastructure quickly bulged and buckled under the excess pressure, leaking huge volumes of water.

Ordinarily, Veolia would manage the water pressure in its pipes by sending an engineer to operate the valves manually. But in this instance, the valves needed so much attention that this was impractical. It was this episode that prompted Veolia to seek an automated solution.

The company decided to fit its pipeline infrastructure with a network of sensors that detect water pressure and flow rates, plus controllers that manage the pressure automatically. The aim was to create a system that balances water pressure according to demand and water flow without human intervention.

To provide the data infrastructure to this system, Veolia chose a cloud-hosted service from water network management specialist i2O Water.

Stephen Eeles, Veolia’s water network manager, explains that building and integrating its own solution would have been far too expensive. “We are a big corporation and have IT that can be very tricky to integrate with new systems,” he says.

One of the winning components of i2O’s pitch, Eeles explains, was its solid service level agreement, which included a 99.9% uptime guarantee.

The pressure sensors on the pipes periodically send readings to i2O’s back-end system, hosted in Rackspace’s Docklands data centre. Once two weeks’ worth of data has been collected, the system calculates a control algorithm for each pressure controller that ensures the optimum rate of pressure change in response to fluctuations in demand.

Preventing leaks

As well as eliminating the need for valve systems to be managed manually, the system saves 1.5 million litres of water every day by preventing the leaks that occur when a rapid change of water pressure causes a pipe to burst, says Eeles.

This more than compensates for the extra cost that is now involved in managing the water network, he says. “i2O is more expensive than what we were putting into the network before, but the savings in [reduced] leakage and management have been well worth the effort.”

The only issue with collecting and processing sensor data in i2O’s cloud is that Veolia cannot currently use that data in its reports to the UK’s water regulator, Ofwat. Veolia has kept its old data loggers running during the i2O rollout for this reason, recording pressure and flow rates. “That’s purely because our old systems can’t format the i2O data,” Eeles explains. “It’s one of our IT issues within Veolia.”

The system does not remove all uncertainty from managing water infrastructure – peaks and troughs in customer demand are still difficult to predict. However, it certainly points to a future in which home water meter data and other predictors of demand could be incorporated so that water pressure can be entirely optimised.

Beatrice Bartlay

Beatrice Bartlay founded 2B Interface, a temporary and permanent staffing agency in 2005 and has since been serving the UK recruitment sector with specialised services. With more than ten years’ experience...

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