Plan for an Unpredictable 2021: Three Certainties Utilities Can Count On

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By Dan Pinney

There’s an elephant in the room, one that staff probably feels the urge to bring up in every planning meeting: how can water utilities plan for the future when the present is also uncertain?

It’s clear that COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on the industry as the pandemic evolves and — hopefully — diminishes with the delivery of vaccines. In the meantime, utilities need to make decisions that will keep services running smoothly amid uncertain times and lay the groundwork for growth as the world recovers.

The following three key trends and technologies can help water utility managers flourish in 2021.

1. Remote Management Is Here to Stay

COVID-19 is stretching utilities in ways they never could have anticipated. Workforce and community safety are always a priority; however, the pandemic has created a potential hazard with every personal interaction.

Utilities can take precautions in the era of social distancing by investing in remote monitoring and management capabilities. Most of the interaction between water crews and customers takes place when service is terminated or restored. Non-payment is one reason, but utilities also perform the task at high-turnover properties in university towns and resort communities. It is also necessary during real estate transactions such as home sales and foreclosures.

Remote management capabilities can help mitigate pandemic dangers and also reduce staff time and truck rolls. Upgrading to a smart utility network that combines intelligent measurement tools, a near real-time communication network and advanced analytics allows utilities to protect crews and customers while building a foundation for the future.

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2. Conservation Will Create Opportunities

As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, the industry also faces a water scarcity issue in some regions. Increasingly stringent conservation regulations put more pressure on utilities to be good stewards of water resources. The challenge for many providers is to improve the nagging issue of water loss.

Meters are typically a good place to start. The transition to a smart utility network can help utilities reduce non-revenue water and advance their water loss prevention goals. Applying analytics to meters along with customer usage patterns can identify potential problems for managers to address.

Meters are essentially a utility’s cash register, so accuracy is critical. They need to be tested routinely to ensure proper reads. If meters in a certain part of the system are showing a high rate of drift or the asset is several decades old, a meter replacement program may be advised.

3. The Path to Resiliency Is Smart

Demand for remote management capabilities was already increasing prior to COVID-19. Now add the uptick of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, and seamless service is a growing challenge.

For resiliency’s sake, utilities must be equipped to face extreme weather events in addition to new customer service demands and changing regulations. A smart utility network can serve as an important solution for a multitude of priorities. Utilities can monitor source water, alert customers of leaks and react to low- pressure events before they trigger boil orders.

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Build the Right Roadmap

There are many options to consider when it comes to investing in smart infrastructure. Applications for remote pressure monitoring and shutoff are available to use with residential meters. Flow and pressure sensors, as well as valve controls, are also deployable across a utility’s entire distribution system.

While many of these tools aren’t new, they have improved recently in the amount, resolution and timeliness of their data transmission. The increased volume and data quality of these applications allows utilities more complete visibility into their water cycle which translates into actionable insights.

Flexibility is a defining characteristic of smart infrastructure. Utilities can use these systems to address challenges like those from the pandemic and never miss a beat if priorities shift.

Look Ahead with Clarity

The lessons learned from the past year can create a clear path forward. Technology advancements can address challenges utilities face to deliver the highest level of service and ensure the safety of both workers and customers. Providers should consider how investments may improve current and future operations. No matter how the pandemic — or the industry itself — evolves, reliable, remote, data-driven technology is the best weapon against uncertainty.


Dan Pinney is the global director of water marketing for Sensus, a Xylem brand, based in Raleigh, N.C. Pinney has more than 27 years of experience in the global water industry with leadership roles in operations and development at Sensus. He is a frequent contributor to WF&M.

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