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Using digital meter leak notifications to support customers

Water authorities across Australia are deploying digital meter fleets in pursuit of more effective network management and, as trials and pilots mature, utilities are increasingly able to support customers in identifying leaks to reduce bill shock and save water. 

As part of its Webinar on Demand series, Iota hosted a panel of experts to discuss how organisations are leaning into using customer leak notifications to support customers and preserve water.

“Many water authorities and councils across Australia are involved in rolling out water metering,” said David Mason, Customer Director at Iota. 

“One of the key drivers behind this is to reduce water demand and loss on the customer side of the water network. A key enabler to achieve this is through proactive customer leak notifications to support customers to conserve water and improve customer engagement.”

Panellists, including representatives from Unitywater, Sydney Water and South East Water, each discussed their organisation’s journey in understanding residential and commercial customer needs and effective engagement approaches so far. 

Targeted tracking

Bronwyn Fox, Metering Services Manager at Unitywater said the Queensland utility’s latest smart meter trial saw 10,500 devices rolled out in April 2021.

This includes a mix of integrated meters and loggers, as well as two Internet of Things networks in one location on the Sunshine Coast. 

“We are talking today about customer-side leak notifications, and this was Unitywater’s first use case. The role for us was around supporting our customers to reduce bill shock, and being able to reduce the notification time from 90 days down to three days,” Fox said.

“To do this we introduced a leak tracker, which is a [business intelligence] report for being able to identify the leaks. We targeted our leaks at greater than 500 litres per day with a minimum of 48 hours of continuous flow through the device. 

“Our approach in addressing and managing customer-side leaks started out as a highly manual process. We used a phased approach to managing our customer-side leaks with the focus on the highest leaks first, making our way down to 500 litres per day. This is a parameter that we maintain to this day.” 

Fox said customers were informed that they had a possible leak on their property using SMS, email and where necessary through the post.

“We then moved to sharing with the customers how much money it is likely to cost them if they don’t repair the leak by the time their next bill arrives,” she said.

“It was almost like a forecasted bill shock that we could share with them.”

Unitywater now plans to survey the 1700 customers who received a leak notification to find out if they have repaired the leak at their property.

“This will give us some insight as to whether the information we have provided them is relevant and useful,” Fox said.

Increased satisfaction

Sydney Water, too, has begun a digital metering program aimed at helping inform customers of leaks.

"We are currently completing production pilots and validating core capability focusing on validating the different operating delivery models, and also validating the technologies available, looking at both residential and non-residential solutions,” said Damien Bell, Digital Metering Project Manager.

“When we analysed the CFN [continual flow notification] process, we determined that leaking services added financial burden to water bills and customers expressed their interest in services that could save them money.

“And leaking water depleted Sydney Water’s water storage and was adding stress to water security.”

The utility’s original trial, covering a variety of geographic and socioeconomic groups, involved 175 customers, rising to 550 for the second trial.

“As of April 2023, we have 3200 customers able to receive a notification,” Bell said.

“Participants were willing to try simple things to resolve [the problem], though they are not keen to invest a lot of time and money. They see value in notification, though this can also create a gap in satisfaction if they don’t know what to do next.”

By the second trial, Sydney Water was able to create an average water saving of around 26 kilolitres. 

“Vulnerable customers that were unable to check the leaks due to physical disability, were referred to Sydney Water’s water fix team and they were able to fix the leak,” Bell added.

Automated leak alerts

Digital Utility Team Project Manager Ash Walsh said Victoria’s South East Water – which now has just under 90,000 digital meters in its fleet – has come a long way since it started out on its digital metering journey. 

“Like many utilities, our journey started when digital meters started gaining attention. There was a lot of talk about the business case and leaks are a big part of that, but digital metering also helps to solve issues with customer bills,” he said. 

“In the early days, for us it was about testing the technology, the telco connectivity, and also making sure that the meters were working the way we needed them to. From there, we started to look at customer notifications. And, in 2020, we introduced our automated leak alert process.” 

“When we lead into mass rollout of over one million meters, we'll have everything automated. From there, it'll be about that continuous improvement cycle. This will be an iterative process that continues and it'll change as and when it needs to.”

Introduced in 2020, South East Water’s automated leak alert process takes a two-pronged approach to customer leak notifications, depending on whether the leaks are small or large. 

“It starts with an alarm on the meter when there's a minimum flow of five litres per hour detected continuously through a 24-hour period,” said South East Water Process Improvement Manager, Frances Ip.

“We've got a two-tier system of small and large leaks. For large leaks, our notifications get sent out on day one after the alarm has been triggered. In practice, this is about a day and a half to two and a half days after the flow has actually started.

“For small leaks, it's day seven. We set up this difference between the timings of large and small leaks to balance between the impact on a customer's bill.”

Ip said the approach also allows South East Water to focus on addressing larger and more costly leaks first, while also balancing effort with effective outcomes for smaller leaks. 

“With large leaks, we wanted to get the notification out earlier. For small leaks, we want to minimise the false positives that we get: for example, a small leak might be a tap that’s been left running, which is something a customer would likely find out for themselves and be able to turn off,” she said. 

Big benefits

“This has saved more than 700 million litres of drinking water. We've also got some digital meters on our recycled water network that have saved about 30 million litres in recycled water. 

“This work has saved our customers over $3 million to date. Typically, that's about $100 saved off the customer's next quarterly bill, but that has actually reached into thousands of dollars for some customers.”

Ip said analysis has shown that the approach has been hugely successful in addressing customer-end leaks, and in reducing bill shock. 

“Our closure rates have been really good. About 60-70% of customers have stopped their leaks after the first notification and around 90% after the third notification, depending on the size of the leak,” she said.

Interested in hearing more about the customer leak notification journey of South East Water, Sydney Water or Unitywater? Take a look at the full webinar here