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How Internet of Things Can Be A Game Changer For The Water Industry

Authors: Glenn Wilson, Raghu Bharadwaj, Ash Walsh

Innovation is something that we strive for at Yarra Valley Water. It allows us to continually evolve our business and to deliver results for our customers. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one way that Yarra Valley Water is future-proofing the way we do business in line with our 2030 strategy.

In simple terms, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of interconnected computing devices which 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/component costs. In some instances, the devices are so cheap that they are thrown away at the end of their life.

Coca-Cola vending machines were amongst 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. The depth and breadth of potential IoT use cases now spans almost every industry.

When it comes to water corporations, initiatives like digital metering, significant changes to environmental legislation, increased compliance requirements, and dynamic customer expectations are driving the industry to embrace technology more and more.

The water industry has long connected our critical assets to SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems for real-time monitoring and control. Typical examples include water and sewer pumping stations, treatment plants, large flow meters and pressure sensors, and water quality monitoring points.

The sensors at these critical assets have typically had a higher accuracy requirement (and are often regularly calibrated to ensure they remain within defined tolerances) and are designed to be robust and reliable (they are often powered, have inbuilt redundancy, and often dual network communications capability). 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 (OT) expert staff within the organisation.

cabinet with wires showing internet of things devices
A recent example of a water quality monitoring point which is connected to our SCADA system

As well as our critical installation-based assets, Yarra Valley Water has over 20,000 kms of water mains and sewer mains, which are mostly unmonitored, meaning we often rely on our customers to contact us about failures.

The Opportunity

The Internet of Things presents a unique 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 and enabling us to:

  • Identify significant issues (like sewer spills and major pipe breaks) before customers call us.
  • Identify smaller issues as they escalate through the analysis of trend data. In many instances this will prevent the occurrence of more significant issues.
  • Automate the issuing of emergency or planned maintenance jobs to resolve issues – speeding up response times and improving network reliability.

Yarra Valley Water has classified these devices as “business critical”. They are much cheaper, typically battery-powered, and are designed to transmit smaller amounts of data less frequently to maximise their lifespan. We plan to manage them through a device management platform (due to the large number of devices), with network communications services to be provided by a specialist network operator. The data received from the devices will be combined with other relevant business data and analysed to provide meaningful and actionable insights – for the business and customers.

Some of the business-critical devices currently being considered are:

  • Digital water meters – Measurement of the volume of water consumed which can be used to identify unnecessary customer use such as leaks, water losses in the broader pipe network (when combined with bulk flow meter data), and potential behavioural change interventions to reduce overall consumption.
  • Plug-in device – The device is secured on to a mechanical meter or larger-sized meter and a probe measures the pulse. The most common pulse sensors for magnetic pulse outputs are reed switches. The plug-in device capture the pulse count and transmit the data in a similar way to a digital water meter via a wireless communications network.
  • Water pressure sensors – Measurement of water pressure which can be used to identify when water is off, valves not returned to the correct position following operational events, cross-connections between supply zones, and other network deficiencies which may slowly escalate over time.
  • Sewer level sensors – Measurement of the level of flow in sewer pipes and manholes which can be used to identify overflows, pipe blockages, impact of wet weather on the system, and system capacity constraints.
hand holding small pressure sensor device
An example of a low cost (less than $20), high accuracy (+/-2.5%) pressure sensor which could be deployed into an IoT device

Some of the key learnings from Yarra Valley Water’s IoT journey so far:

  • Don’t 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.
  • Careful consideration needs to be given to how much processing is done on the device versus your backend IT systems. Yarra Valley Water’s preference is to keep the device as simple as possible and do the bulk of the data analytics in our own 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.

More Information

For more information on the work Yarra Valley Water is doing in relation to IoT, please contact Raghu Bharadwaj via email [email protected].