Future networks

Future networks

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Mark Smith, Business Development Director for RPS Water division (writing for the Spring issue of the Institute of Water Journal) discusses how future networks will act as the catalyst to improve water and wastewater levels of service, inform investment decisions and deliver excellent customer service.

Since privatisation, the UK Water Industry has seen significant change and achieved a great deal for customers and the environment.

However, recently there has been significant change to the regulatory landscape. Totex, SIM and increasing customer expectations are now playing a greater role and are at the centre of business plans, alongside the recent introduction of increased competition and retail/wholesale separation. The move to outcomes, SIM and totex-based regulation has created a shift change in how we manage water and wastewater networks.

Customers and Communities

Our customers and communities expect the highest levels of responsiveness, technical insight and quality; in short, right first time. The previous focus has been on outputs and asset renewal against a programme of predetermined deliverables. However, we now need a more network focused response, encompassing a “Strategy to Operations” approach. This approach takes into account all the strategic and operational tensions to reduce supply interruptions, blockages, flooding, complaints and costs.

It relies on sufficient water and wastewater understanding to ensure the right balance of operational, maintenance and capital investment is made to ensure outcomes are delivered in the most efficient totex-based manner. Effective evidence-based decision making to inform intervention definition is therefore key.

Evidence-Based Decision Making

The need for resilient smart networks has caused a reassessment of data quality, sensor innovation and network configuration. We have managed the clean water networks successfully to a position where a step change is required, with sewer networks close behind as data quality and availability improve. However, despite these improvements in data quality and availability, we still rely on customers to inform us of network failures, whether this be supply interruptions, discolouration, sewer flooding or river pollution. We need to invest in innovative approaches to minimise the use of customers as “telemetry”.

How future networks will act as the catalyst to improve water and wastewater levels of service, inform investment decisions and deliver excellent customer service.

We need to use good network data to pre-empt and prevent interruptions and sewer flooding, or at worst warn customers and mitigate impacts, thus improving customer experience. Sensors and data streams are becoming more and more affordable allowing greater flexibility of deployment. The ability to gather disparate data sources, organise and display them will improve network management. At RPS, we have developed Waternet™ and Wastewaternet™ information management tools to bring together disparate data sources into a single environment so that network engineers can proactively identify issues, determine root cause, and address issues before customers are inconvenienced through supply interruptions, flooding, blockages or sewer collapse. Traditionally loggers were considered to be fixed boxes inside a chamber. Advances in communication protocols and cheaper technology, as well as smart algorithms to analyse data trends and predict performance means we are now embracing permanent monitoring on a wide scale across water networks and increasingly on wastewater networks.

Pressure loggers, turbidity monitors, chlorine residual monitors, sewer flow and depth sensors, rain gauges and equipment operation alarms are now being placed across whole networks in a move to make them SMART.

Additionally, we are now able to look at different kinds of data sources, for example twitter and social media, and perform data mining tasks on keywords to give us an insight into what customers are doing with their water supply, or how flooding is spreading across an urban catchment in response to changing weather.

The ability to analyse, interpret and respond to these diverse data points will be key to enhancing the customer experience.

Future Networks

In order to link all the competing tensions together, we need a future networks approach, linking “Strategy to Operations” culture and ensuring all stakeholders are aware of high-level outcome requirements and the impact of their operations. This will make us think about the availability of accurate and timely data in order to drive excellence. With all this information comes insight and an understanding of how best to invest. For example, using real time data to proactively remove blockages to prevent flooding or pollution may give a more efficient solution than traditional sewer improvements or fixed jetting programmes. We can use this data to fully assess how operational interventions such as mains flushing ‘stack up’ against conventional and expensive mains rehabilitation schemes.

Critical to all this is understanding the totex nature of solutions and not compartmentalising capital and operational solutions. At RPS, we have enhanced our capability to deliver the “Strategy to Operations” concept by integrating strategic, engineering, operational and data collection services to provide clients with the necessary skills to achieve outcomes through the variety of approaches required.

We see future networks as the catalyst to improve levels of service, inform investment decisions and deliver enhanced customer service. We also believe it will deliver no-build, low carbon solutions that minimises inconvenience to our customers and communities.