Water needs its iPhone moment - cue the smart valve

By Jon Daniels, Water Networks Specialist at Oxford Flow

Water companies are actively looking for ways to be smarter. But when up against increasing demands and often ageing infrastructure, that’s easier said than done.

It’s unlikely we’ll get there with piecemeal improvements either – the industry needs radical innovation that fundamentally changes how things work. Much like the iPhone did to the mobile phone market in 2007. A ‘smart’ approach has long been on the industry’s wish list, but it becomes increasingly important day by day.

Look at the outrage in the UK when hosepipe bans were suggested in response to this summer’s heatwave. Especially when weighed against the 3 billion litres of treated water lost every single day of 2017 in England and Wales. For the utilities faced with the task of operating with and upgrading what is often Victorian era infrastructure, it’s very much a rock-and-a-hard-place.

Making waves…

There has been innovation and improvement in the water sector over the years. But it’s been incremental; tweaking engineering designs and adding a patchwork of digital assets, such as pressure sensors.

This incremental approach is crucial – as was the progression through Nokia 3210, 3310, 3410 – but now it’s time for the iPhone moment.

A smart system must be proactive, not reactive. That means predicting, identifying and fixing problems before they affect customers – or communicating disruption ahead of time. This applies to leaks but also to water quality. Currently there’s no visibility within the distribution infrastructure and water quality is typically tested by taking samples from the tap and packing it off to a lab.

Drenched in possibility…

Imagine a system where problems are identifiable and fixable before they reach the customer. Issues could be spotted and located to a fine level of granularity – making maintenance and repairs easier, cheaper and more efficient. Utilities are able to optimise their systems against multiple parameters across the breadth of their network.

But how do we make that a reality?

One crucial technology for realising this vision is the next generation of pressure reducing valves (PRVs). PRVs have been around for over a century, only recently undergoing innovation from an engineering standpoint. Now they’re undergoing a second, digital transformation.

Modern PRVs are equipped with sensors, collecting information on pressure and water quality. Crucially – thanks to modern, more affordable battery, communication and energy harvesting technologies – these can now feed this information back to the control room for analysis. For example, if leaks are detected, the valve can be controlled remotely to reduce pressure and therefore losses. PRVs will be the “smart valves” at the centre of an intelligently optimised and controlled network.

The smartest systems will use technologies such as analytics and machine learning to optimise maintenance schedules and asset replacement and even predict problems before they occur.

This would represent an iPhone moment: once the radical shift is made, the market can return to incremental innovation. The first iPhone may have been a revolution, but the subsequent models have been evolutions since.

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