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How smart tech boosts a utility's performance

IoT is a technological solution that gets an entire water network talking, providing visibility over services in near real-time. A digital expert explains how it can transform the water sector — and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Raghu Bharadwaj, digital metering divisional manager at Yarra Valley Water, said that in simple terms, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of interconnected computing devices that have the capability to transfer data between one another via a wireless communications network without human interaction.

“This communications network is constantly evolving — and in recent times, the number of connections has exponentially increased due to the advent of low-cost communications technologies and falling device and component costs," he said.

"In some instances, the devices are so cheap that they are thrown away at the end of their life.”

Coca-Cola vending machines were among the first IoT devices. They had the ability to report back to head office when stock levels were running low or when there were issues with the machine cooling system which might impact product quality. Now the opportunities for IoT span almost every industry.

As a collection of physical sensor devices that are connected to a wireless network collecting data, they can generate insights to help make decisions and take actions. This is applicable across the industry, from helping to prevent water shortages during droughts, to the water, sanitation and hygiene sector in developing nations.

“For the wider water industry, IoT can be applied to things such as water quality measurement, water consumption to educate and empower customers on being water smart, leak management, water and sewer level monitoring to prevent spills, and water supply management,” Bharadwaj said.

“Another important opportunity that IoT enables is cross collaboration of data from different industries to generate further insights. For example, correlating weather data with water consumption data.”

Operational efficiency

The water industry has long connected critical assets to SCADA — supervisory control and data acquisition — systems for real-time monitoring and control over aspects of a network such as water and sewer pumping stations, treatment plants, large flow meters and pressure sensors, and water-quality monitoring points.

“Sensors at these critical assets have typically had a higher accuracy requirement, and are often regularly calibrated to ensure they remain within defined tolerances. They are designed to be robust and reliable — they are usually powered, have inbuilt redundancy, and often dual network communications capability,” Bharadwaj said.

“Device costs, made up of the sensor and the communications equipment to connect to backend IT systems, are typically in the tens of thousands of dollars. The backend IT systems to support them are highly secure and often only accessed by a handful of operational technology staff within the organisation.”

The Internet of Things presents an opportunity to change this, with the deployment of thousands of low-cost devices across the entire network, providing visibility of what is happening in near real time.

“Operationally, it can help utilities identify significant issues like sewer spills and major pipe breaks before customers call us. It can also help us to identify smaller issues as they escalate through the analysis of trend data. Finally, it can help us to automate the issuing of emergency or planned maintenance jobs, speeding up response times and improving network reliability,” he said.

Lessons learned

Since rolling out an IoT network at Yarra Valley Water, Bharadwaj said that the utility is still learning how to manage all of this data.

“We have learned not to get caught up in the hype and keep things simple. There can be a tendency to find devices which solve multiple problems at the same time but you need to constantly balance business value with cost,” he said.

“Careful consideration needs to be given to how much processing is done on the device versus your backend IT systems. The primary reasons for this are to increase device life, reduce device cost, and minimise the cyber security risk.

“It is important to understand the differences between ‘mission critical’ and ‘business critical’ devices and carefully design your enterprise architecture to support both by taking into account the different cyber security, data storage and availability, and data analytics considerations for each.”