Seeing the Bigger Picture: Next-Level Network Monitoring for Water Utilities

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Photo: Pipelife International GmbH

Leakages in water distribution networks are known to be a headache for utilities. While modern technologies allow for the detection of cracks in supply pipes earlier and more precisely than ever, the possibilities of employing such solutions in remote areas with limited power supply remain limited. Working closely with some of the leading water suppliers in Europe, Pipelife has developed a fully modular, battery-powered solution that can be easily installed in any non-trafficable points in the water network and equipped with the sensors of the client’s choice.

The Water That’s Lost: Addressing Aging Infrastructure and High Leakage Rates

Across the EU, nearly one-quarter of all drinking water is wasted due to distribution losses. The term used to describe the phenomenon — non-revenue water (NRW) — refers to water losses from leaks and other infrastructure damages as well as to various forms of water theft and even meter inaccuracies.

Yet, it’s becoming apparent that the aging water infrastructure in many regions of Europe is a key contributor to high NRW rates. Cracks in outdated water supply pipes increase with the age of the system, causing significant water losses over time.

The estimated NRW rates vary a lot from one Member State to another; however, countries that have invested more in their water infrastructure modernization tend to have lower rates. Currently, Bulgaria has the highest estimated NRW rate of around 60%, while the Netherlands has only 5%.

The revised European Drinking Water Directive, coming into force in January 2021, is taking a tighter grip on water losses. According to the Directive, water utilities supplying at least 10,000 m3 per day or serving at least 50,000 people will be expected to provide information on their performance efficiency and leakage rates. In addition, water leakage levels will have to be assessed by all Member States and reduced if they exceed a certain threshold.

Why Leakage Detection Remains a Challenge

As the total length of Europe’s drinking water network reaches 4.3 million kilometers of pipes and rehabilitating water supply infrastructure remains costly, detecting the leaks precisely is crucial to keep infrastructure upgrades economically feasible.

Historically, leak detection for utilities was problematic until the water had reached the surface. However, continuously evolving technologies, from acoustic detection and pressure monitoring to advanced analytics and machine learning, have recently enabled the utilities to identify and spot-locate anomalies in their distribution systems at an early stage.

Nowadays, there are plenty of sensor-based solutions on the market for monitoring water network functionality and water quality. However, such products oftentimes cannot be placed densely enough along a network due to site constraints or limited possibilities for power supply, leaving water utilities with areas in their networks that remain unmonitored.

No More Blind Spots: A Solution Treating the Pain Points of Water Utilities

Working closely with Dutch water utilities, Pipelife has developed SmartProbe — a fully modular, sensor-based solution for monitoring hard-to-access areas in potable water networks.

SmartProbe units can be installed directly on PE, PVC and cast-iron pipes anywhere in the water supply system within non-trafficable zones in just 1.5-3 hours. Thanks to a flush valve, the installation can be done without interrupting the water supply or risking contamination.

Photo: Pipelife International GmbH

Each SmartProbe device is equipped with sensors tailored to the customer’s specific needs. Several plug-and-play sensors, measuring pressure, temperature, pH, conductivity and turbidity, enable utilities to establish a complete picture of their network and execute better operation and maintenance decisions. Once installed, SmartProbe requires minimal maintenance and can be serviced from the ground level.

According to Maurice Meester, New Energy Product Manager at Pipelife Netherlands, pressure sensors currently dominate the wish lists from utilities:

“These sensors are simple and require minimal maintenance; therefore, when utilities embark on their path of digitalization, they typically begin here. Data on pressure changes can be utilized in leak detection, asset management and maintenance, as well as when it comes to enhancing the network’s overall efficiency.”

Digital Transformation Made Simple: More Flexibility in Asset Management

While SmartProbe can be seamlessly integrated into preexisting third-party data management systems, it is also possible to combine it with SmartHub — Pipelife’s own cloud-based monitoring platform for data analysis and visualization. Meester explains that the latter option is particularly attractive to smaller utilities, as they often lack the resources to develop their own comprehensive data management systems:

“Water companies in Europe vary a lot when it comes to their network sizes, number of customers, as well the funding and staffing available for enhancing their asset management. SmartHub enables utilities of all sizes to have a turnkey data visualization and control system customized to their exact needs.”

Apart from adaptable functionality and interface, SmartHub allows connecting SmartProbe with other smart solutions developed by Pipelife, including flood warning or smart pumping stations, to arrive at an end-to-end solution built to suit the complex and ever-changing needs of the water industry.

Building Europe’s Largest Digital Twin

More than 70 SmartProbe units have already been installed on the waterlines in the Netherlands and Sweden, and the first projects in Austria and Serbia are underway. As the solution has attracted the attention of major water suppliers, the number of SmartProbes on duty will reach four digits in the near future.

Brabant Water N.V., a Dutch potable water utility catering to 2.6 million inhabitants in the province of Noord-Brabant, has always been among the front-runners when it comes to sustainable water management and implementing cutting-edge solutions. The utility is currently developing one of Europe’s largest digital twins for its 18,000-kilometer supply network.

Establishing a network of data points across the whole network is crucial for a digitalization project of such scale. In August 2024, the installation of over 700 Pipelife SmartProbe units will commence, enabling real-time data transmission. The data points will be operational in all 100 district-metered areas (DMA) of the network by the end of 2025.

The innovation is needed to further enhance the efficiency of water distribution as well as to promptly detect even small cracks and leakages that can contribute to significant volumes of lost water over time.

With the integration of additional data sources such as smart water meters and sensors measuring flow, pressure and temperature, Brabant Water will gain a comprehensive understanding of its network that will be used to further optimize its processes and infrastructure.

“Thanks to Pipelife’s modular sensor solution, we will soon be collecting real-time data about the status of our network and the water that flows through it. This gives us up-to-date insights and an incredible amount of information with which we can further optimize our processes,” says Rob van Dongen, CEO at Brabant Water.

From Reactive to Proactive Water Management

As water infrastructure issues are not limited to areas that are easy to access and monitor, having a real-time, end-to-end oversight of assets gives utilities a new level of leverage when it comes to optimizing their processes, reducing costs and improving the customer experience.

Eliminating so-called blind spots in potable water networks will be imperative to curb NRW rates and promptly address water quality issues, bridging the current gap to water infrastructure that meets the ever-tightening industry norms and regulations as well as customer expectations.

More info: SmartProbe Network and Water Quality Sensors | Pipelife

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