Water utilities take on the difficult job of ensuring that water always will be safe and that capacity always will be available — whether delivering drinking water or treating wastewater. This is becoming an increasingly difficult task, given unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic that compound the chronic issues with aging water infrastructure and an aging workforce taking its institutional knowledge into retirement with it. Finding the right balance of resource allocation and operations activities is vital.
The water industry is an asset-intensive, rate-restricted industry that requires informed decision-making to effectively balance capital investment and rising operational expenses with resistance to rate increases. This makes the water industry notoriously complex, variable and uncertain. The industry, therefore, is an ideal candidate for a technological overhaul and transformation that would build new, data-driven solutions for effective asset management, efficient operations and remote system management, reducing operating costs. This overhaul will rely on better use of existing data coupled with new sensors, information integration and data analytics to achieve a sought-after result called “digital water.” However, most utilities have a long way to go with digital sensors, communications and data analytics before they can reach the desired future state as a digital water utility.
Digital transformation of water utilities is not based on the implementation of a single technology but a collection of operational technologies. Those including field sensors, communications backbones, computer models and assessments coupled with predictive software, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, geographic information systems (GIS), flow and/or water quality data analysis, computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and operations management systems (OMS), as well as customer information systems (CIS). The right combination of these technologies, when properly integrated, will fuel digital water transformation.
2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report
With its survey of nearly 300 water industry stakeholders as its backbone, Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report comprehensively analyzes the sector’s complex landscape of challenges and opportunities. The leveraging of data in driving decision-making and optimizing efficiencies in water and wastewater systems is widening even as infrastructure continues to age, climate change strains assets, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial havoc pressures the bottom lines of many utilities through lost revenues. We look at all of that and more.
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The Beginning of the Utility Data Analytics Pipeline
Today, service providers generally are in at least the early stages of implementing some element of digital water technology, according to Black & Veatch’s annual survey of industry stakeholders for its 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report. This means they are collecting data in an attempt to drive smart decision-making. However, few utilities can say they are fully digitized despite their data collections growing ever larger.
When asked to describe current data management practices, 15 percent of survey respondents indicated that they have a robust, fully integrated approach. This achievement is worthy of further study to characterize best practices among the high-performing utilities. Most water utilities — 56 percent — indicated that their efforts are strong and getting stronger, but they still are not yet fully integrated. Finally, a significant minority of utilities (29 percent) noted that their data is still largely isolated in silos and not integrated.
The efforts made vary significantly depending on utility size. While 24 percent of utilities serving 500,000 or more customers reported that they have a robust, fully integrated approach to data management in place, only 7 percent of smaller water utilities said the same.
Data, But Not Insight
The vast majority of water utilities reported they are collecting lots of data. Still, only roughly 20 percent of respondents say they are leveraging it effectively for digital transformation, meaning that most utilities have a long way to go in their push to optimize their utility data analytics. Collecting data is a critical first step, but it can be a significant challenge to use that raw data to yield actionable intelligence, improve digital water utility operations, and effect digital transformation.
Knowing where to start can be a challenge. As water utilities are highly asset- and infrastructure-oriented, one of the best first steps toward digital water is the adoption or improvement of asset management business practices. Additionally, a rapidly growing subset of data collection is in remote system monitoring. Water utilities often carry high field services costs that can be addressed through increased remote system monitoring, which is a major step in digital water transformation.
The Quality-Access-Leverage Equation
Success as a digital utility hinges on the quality, access and leverage of available data throughout the organization. Survey results showed that significant numbers of water utility professionals — more than 90 percent — are positive on their views of their data quality, labeling it “very good” or “good” and either “all correct” or “mostly correct,” but this may not be the full picture. Quality may be excellent in specific areas, but it is unlikely across the whole utility. Furthermore, access to data and effective leverage of that data are key elements of a successful digital utility.
Quality: The first element in achieving digital water efficiencies is ensuring the data being collected is of the highest possible quality and is appropriate to the needs of the organization.
Access: This involves not only having the data and ensuring that it’s correct and complete, but ensuring it is available and secured within technology platforms and across all business areas that measure and manage the utility’s assets and operations.
Leverage: The utility must implement appropriate tools, analytics, and workflows to make the best use of the data and leverage it for deeper insights throughout the organization — not necessarily just the original purpose it was collected for.
Utilities with properly structured and vetted data policies can collate, organize and leverage it across systems and workgroups to ensure integration and effective management of the infrastructure to enable good digital water utility data-centric decision making.
The Elements of Digital Water
When asked which functions or elements they see as being included in a digital water initiative, few commonalities exist. The “digital water” definition seems to be unclear for many. Some of the best-established systems that are widely utilized — such as SCADA, GIS, flow and water quality data, and CMMS — were less likely to be considered as part of a digital water initiative. This may be partly because they have been in use for a long time already, but it also may be that these systems are viewed as important for a particular “silo” in the organization. In practice, each of these systems are data-rich and are important foundational elements for a digital water utility.
The top systems identified as part of a digital water initiative were also some of the least widely utilized systems, such as energy management, document management, business intelligence and enterprise resource management. This may reflect an understanding that a digital water initiative is an effort to implement new systems. While this may be true — and some new systems may be required — integration of existing systems is also a key element in optimizing a digital utility.
Barriers to Digital Water, Utility Transformation
The most challenging issue to water utilities today is aging water and wastewater infrastructure, with nearly 80 percent of water utilities of all sizes identifying this as their biggest problem. Utilities will have a more difficult path to a digital water initiative if their equipment and technologies are not optimized for smart water utility practices, costing them an opportunity to be more targeted in addressing aging infrastructure and prioritizing investment dollars.
Additionally, many organizations report mixed success when it comes to getting top-level management to commit to a culture of innovation. Only 37 percent of organizations report that management is fully committed to innovation, and only 28 percent report that their organizations have a clear vision and goals established for more sustainable models of operations in the future. Only 13 percent of utilities reported that the use of resources is clearly mapped and documented to provide transparency.
Going forward, water utilities will need to properly deploy digital data acquisition and wield data analytics in utility operations and maintenance. That would preserve their existing infrastructure, address burdensome O&M costs, reduce water waste, determine where new investments in infrastructure would be most effective, and reap the benefits of smart water analytics and data sharing to drive intelligence-based decisions in operations and infrastructure investment.
About the Authors
Jeff Stillman is the asset management practice leader for North America. He has 25 years of experience in system planning, program development, modeling, information system integration and business intelligence.
Jeff Buxton is managing director in the Black & Veatch Management Consulting Group. He leverages more than 40 years of experience within the energy, utility, information technology (IT), technology and industrial sectors, including North American and international management expertise delivering business-to-business solutions. His experience encompasses strategic business planning, technology roadmap planning, IT infrastructure management, contract development, project financing, program management, communications, change and operations management
Andrew Chastain-Howley is a director of digital water solutions for Black & Veatch. He has 30 years of experience in water and wastewater projects in the United Kingdom, Asia, the Middle East and North America. His expertise includes asset management, water loss control, and digital systems and analytics.
James Strayer is the department head for Black & Veatch’s planning and asset management team in North America. He has 27 years of experience spanning planning, design, construction, programs, and asset management applications.