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Long COVID: assessing the virus’ implications for network management

Long COVID: assessing the virus’ implications for network management

By Stuart White, Leakage Services Manager Black & Veatch Europe

Starting to grapple with some of the most stringent leakage targets ever, a 16 percent reduction by 2025, meant 2020 was never going to be an easy year; and then came COVID-19. Almost overnight, when the first lockdown was announced, usage patterns across water networks began to change significantly.

Patterns of usage typical for decades – reflecting a 9-to-5 working week during which most workers commuted from home to workplace - became atypical. People began using water at different times and in different locations. Previously predictable patterns of industrial and commercial use tailed off, domestic consumption increased significantly.

According to Water UK data from June 2020, people were using an average of 20 per cent more water, with some areas seeing up to a 40 per cent increase. The extended spell of good weather was also a factor.

In a further illustration of how unparalleled this period was for utility managers, the power sector - at the same time - was dealing with the opposite challenge. Great Britain set new records for low electricity demand during the late May bank holiday weekend. This was even after the National Grid Electricity System Operator implemented ‘footroom’ financial instruments to raise demand levels and take excess capacity off the grid.

During the summer there was a move away from typical transient patterns of water network activity. With little overseas travel people visited Britain’s beaches and beauty spots in record numbers. In late June the volume of visitors led Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole Council to declare a major incident. As we move into autumn and winter, water companies will need to understand the impact upon network operation, and leakage management programmes, of local lockdowns and tiered restrictions.

Historic data challenge

This sudden and dramatic shift in water network activity is unlikely to be followed by a return to something more typical. New patterns of working and living – and thus network activity – look likely

A report from Cardiff and Southampton universities, published in late August 2020, found that almost 90 percent of workers who worked from home during lockdown wanted to continue working from home in some capacity; with almost half wanting to work at home often or all of the time. Many employers are considering more remote working options, driven in part by the strong incentive of reduced lease and property management costs.

This has significant immediate and long-term implications for water network operators, and meeting Ofwat’s leakage targets. The challenge is to understand how day-to-day and strategic operational planning needs to respond to the changes. It means that using historic network activity data to understand what is happening across the network, and predict what will happened in the future, is becoming increasingly problematic.

Companies with lower levels of monitoring are likely to face bigger challenges because, especially with regard to leakage, without the ability to gain detailed data on new patterns of consumption, it is difficult to measure the volume of unaccounted-for-water entering the network. Even for companies with greater monitoring capabilities the changes wrought by the pandemic will add to the already considerable challenge of identifying leaks and taking effective measures to reduce losses. Managing the new normal, and new leakage targets, requires fuller, more accurate and current data than is commonplace currently.

The data to build back better

Although water companies recognised network data’s central role in meeting new service and leakage targets before COVID-19, investments in the necessary equipment and tools were in many cases work-in-progress. Thus the pandemic will probably act as a catalyst for digitally enabled strategic network management, rather than a driver in its own right. The virus will hasten a journey already commenced and, as digitally enabled strategic network management comes to the fore, water companies will genuinely be building back better. 

Digital transformation provides the data necessary to develop a clear understanding of the network’s constituent parts, how they perform individually, and how they interact collectively. Digital transformation also helps turn the data into meaningful information that can shape preventative maintenance asset management planning.

The most effective digital transition is founded not just on digital tools and data, but on the institutional knowledge of people who understand the network. Plug-and-play software systems generate data; but expertise from a cross-section of water engineering disciplines is necessary to interpret the data patterns and recognise what failure and optimum performance look like. Digital solutions are incomplete unless embedded directly into the engineering solution.

Central to strategic network management is knowing assets’ history, location and condition. A significant amount of clean contemporary data is required to determine optimum performance, and before anomalies can be detected with sufficient confidence. Because there is a cost to capturing, storing and accessing each item of data, it is vital to define the data that best supports strategic network management – and ensuring that this data is of sufficient quality.

Understanding network health

Creating a live central database – by combining digitisation of asset records with near-time reporting from sensors and remote surveys – is vital. Generating greater insight into how assets are operated and performing enables assessment of network health, which can inform the implementation of proactive interventions while expediting the location and resolution of leaks.

Black & Veatch offers such an approach, where a District Metered Area (DMA) Health Index provides water companies with the foundation for a data and insight driven strategy to understand how and where to intervene proactively to reduce leakage most effectively.

As we go into winter COVID’s impact on network activity shows no sign of abating. England is facing a second lockdown, for a minimum of four weeks; while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have in place measures to stop the spread of the virus which will continue to result in atypical patterns of water use. And all of this during the season in which freeze-and-thaw temperature fluctuations typically give rise to the highest levels of leakage.

Even when the post-COVID era finally dawns, it seems very likely that the new patterns of working adopted during the pandemic will remain; which will have a long-term impact on the operation and management of water networks. Fast-track adoption of digitally enabled strategic network management will help manage these changes, deliver leakage targets, and create a more resilient network - better able to cope with foreseen and unforeseen challenges.


This article was first published in the Winter 2020 edition of Institute of Water Magazine

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