Taking IoT into Uncharted Waters

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By Phil Beecher

In an age of rising drought, every water operator is searching for ways to reduce loss. Distribution inefficiencies and aging infrastructure can cost water utilities billions of dollars every year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water distribution systems lose 1.7 trillion gallons per year, at a cost of $2.6 billion (USD). The average urban water utility loses 17 percent of water before it reaches end users.

These are just a few reasons that correcting leaks and increasing conservation are critical initiatives for any water industry leader. A recent Wi-SUN Alliance study, The Journey to IoT Maturity, found that three in four companies say they are very likely or definitely planning to implement Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that detect leaks and reduce water loss.

That the water industry has become more technologically sophisticated isn’t news. IoT tools address smarter water management and cost savings on the business end and guide more efficient water consumption on the customer end. Sharpening operational efficiencies is high on most water managers’ wish lists, and so is surpassing their competitors. The study found 92 percent of organizations, including utilities firms, are motivated to invest in IoT over the next 12 months to stay competitive in their markets.

But the road to IoT success isn’t smooth for every water operator. There’s a critical element that can get left out of the conversation: implementing the right communications infrastructure.

Solving Leakage with IoT Technology

Today’s IoT tools stop water loss – and the associated costs – in several ways. Most water managers are familiar with smart meters, which can signal waste and measure consumption with a precision that analog meters just can’t match. By using analytics to identify weak areas and future failures, teams can proactively correct problems and avoid the high cost of emergency repairs. Satellite leak detection or measuring the temperature of the soil surrounding pipes can spare utilities the cost of drilling down to physically examine pipes; smart sensors can monitor pressure and find defects invisible to the human eye.

Just as IoT tools have become more sophisticated in recent years, the report found that water utilities have expanded their uses for IoT implementation over the last half decade. Forward-thinking water managers are using these tools to meet environmental mandates requiring them to improve their water consumption efficiency, such as using smart meters to reduce waste in U.S. states with drought regulations. Remote-disconnect meters and other tools allow some utilities to radically reduce costs by no longer sending field crews to residences. IoT technologies also make it easier to monitor water purity to fulfill sanitation compliance regulations.

At the same time, the report found that only 47 percent of organizations today have fully implemented their IoT strategy – with 19 percent of U.S. respondents calling it “extremely difficult” to do so. Some reasons include pandemic-related budget challenges and uncertainty in measuring return on investment. But the biggest roadblocks are technological, such as IT complexity and security concerns.

Building the Right Foundation for IoT Success

Optimizing IoT initiatives begins with the right communications infrastructure. Without that essential foundation, water providers will limit their cost savings and run into integration barriers. Here are a few guidelines to follow.

Choose solutions with open standards. Your team will avoid vendor lock-in and have an easier time integrating new tools without encountering interoperability roadblocks. The report found that 84 percent of respondents consider open standards very important or absolutely crucial (up from 79 percent five years ago) when considering a smart utilities solution.

Despite the strong promotion of 5G communications, for most use cases it is not an appropriate technology on which to deploy your water infrastructure.

Far more suitable is the use of field area networks (FANs) built with a wireless mesh topology. A wireless mesh FAN, based on open standards and optimized large outdoor systems such as water management infrastructure, can offer a cost-effective option. Devices that include security certificates provide another layer of security – and give reassurance to water providers worried about data theft and cyberattacks on devices and networks.

One non-technology consideration – keep in mind the ideal pricing model for your IoT solution.

The Wi-SUN report notes that 35 percent of water utilities have experienced budget cuts as a result of the pandemic, driving them to reallocate or reduce spending at a moment when they need capital for new projects. If you’re one of them, you may want to follow the trend of looking for flexible pricing models when it comes to IoT investments. 81 percent of water managers are looking to pay for equipment and software up front, while 82 percent want operational expenditure (OPEX)-based pricing models that lower the barrier to entry. By dividing their cost allocations, many of these utilities are looking to reduce both upfront costs and taxpayer costs.

The Future of IoT in Water

Smart technologies offer a future of smarter water management. In choosing secure, open and standards-based networks as the communications infrastructure for their IoT projects, water operators can dismantle the technology obstacles in their past – and take conservation to a new level.

Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, a global non-profit member-based association driving the proliferation of interoperable wireless solutions for use in smart cities and other IoT applications.

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