Challenges of PR19: How the Water Industry Can Respond

Regulation driving change in leak detection

The scale of leak reduction required by water companies in England and Wales in AMP7 is sharpening strategies to address this industry challenge, with smart technology having a vital role to play, says David Frost, Chief Executive at Ovarro.

He spoke to LSBUD in their recent industry whitepaper*, 'Challenges of PR19: How The Water Industry Can Respond', about the impact of smart technology on water companies across the UK and their ability to efficiently meet regulatory targets.

LSBUD noted that "smart asset planning, improved industry collaboration, quicker adoption of technologies, more onus on innovation and greater responsiveness, have all been heralded by industry experts as crucial if water companies want to meet the challenges posed by Ofwat’s PR19."*

Around 21% of water put into the public supply in England and Wales is lost and with climate change and an increasing population leading to widespread water stress, pressure on water companies to plug leaks has never been greater.

Many have set themselves much tougher targets than the 16% imposed by Ofwat over the next five years - with Thames Water and Yorkshire Water both citing 25% reduction from 2020-25. And UK Water Industry Research is looking even further ahead by asking how we achieve zero leakage by 2050.

It is Ofwat’s current policy that customers should not pay extra costs and with an ageing distribution network becoming ever-more prone to leaks and bursts, it is clear water utilities cannot continue to do what they have always done and deliver on their commitments.

Historically, the regulatory framework for England & Wales was focused on keeping leakage at a relatively constant level. This was intended to balance the cost of leak management against the short-term value of water production. 
Companies calculated a sustainable economic level of leakage based on data derived under this legacy approach - effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that it is very expensive to make significant reductions in leakage using standard approaches.

A compounding issue is that companies often cut leakage budgets following those years when weather was benign from a leakage perspective, and meeting targets relatively straightforward.  This short-termism meant water companies then struggled to hit targets during colder winters. It also limited investment in continuous improvement of the network.

The pressure coming from consumers and the government make it clear that a different approach is now needed and new detection technologies and a move towards creating smart networks have a vital role to play. The good news is industrial IoT is reshaping automation, engineering and infrastructure globally and for the water industry, the installation of multiple cost-effective leak detection devices makes capturing real-time operational data much easier.

By harnessing and transmitting this wealth of newly available data, companies can carry out strategic operational analysis to drive efficiencies and reduce cost - the report Funding Approaches for Leakage Reduction, written by PWC on behalf of Ofwat, says "the cost of further reducing leakage is constantly evolving as new technology is made available, and this could drive down the cost of leakage reduction in the future".

Acoustic loggers that can pinpoint leaks by measuring the sound generated by water escaping the network are front-of field - immersed acoustic hydrophone sensors, that in essence "listen" to sound waves inside the pipe to pinpoint leaks.

The hydrophone sensors are placed permanently into the pipe at fittings such as fire hydrants or dedicated access points. This means greater sensitivity, resulting in more leaks being found more quickly, on pipes made from a range of materials including plastics and on large diameter pipes.

As part of a £50 million investment in leak reduction, and its increasing move towards smart networks, Yorkshire Water has installed nearly 40,000 acoustic loggers across its region.

Elsewhere, Ovarro has been working closely with Anglian Water on the rollout of a multi-point noise correlation system, the Enigma3hyQ. Loggers transmit daily leak noise data to a server via the 3G or GPRS communication networks. Correlation is performed automatically and remotely every 24 hours on signals received from many loggers in order to locate leak positions accurately. The user can listen to the recorded noise, helping to confirm that correlation results are due to leak noise.

The data is available at any location, on any desktop or mobile device, via a cloud-based data collection software platform. With this technology Anglian Water has been able to fix leaks proactively which offers a significant improvement in customer satisfaction. Smart meters, capable of providing hourly meter reads, are also proving effective in providing more reliable leakage estimates and faster detection rates. Data from 327,000 smart meters installed by Thames Water has prevented over 20 million litres per day of leakage since April 2019.

A 2017 trial by Anglian Water, that saw smart meters rolled out in the town of Newmarket, was helping reduce the impact of leaks in customers’ homes by 108,000 litres a day by April 2018. Anglian is embracing innovation further for its latest trial, announced in January 2020, by using fibre optic cables that are fed into pipes allowing for technology to continually monitor the pipeline for leaks by creating thousands of virtual sensors along the pipeline.

Companies are also exploring using satellite technology to identify leaks from space, providing an alternative solution in some scenarios. The ability of utilities to gather more reliable data in these ways will undoubtedly lead to faster decision making and repairs, but all parts of the business must have their house in order - leaking pipes must ultimately be repaired and replaced, and civil engineering will always play a part.

Similarly, customer engagement and communications will continue to be key and water companies must be seen to lead from the front if they are asking customers to join them in taking responsibility for water stewardship. 

Water companies can help themselves further by ensuring procurement processes enable quicker adoption of new technology and perhaps setting up specialist data management teams to review the increasing amount of incoming data, so it can bring maximum value to  the business.

The challenge ahead should not be underestimated, but by acting now to adopt new technology and adopting and sharing improved processes, water companies can succeed and have the positive environmental impact that is expected by customers and the regulator. 

Access the full white paper from LSBUD via the link below and read more contributions from some of the industry's leading experts on the challenges and opportunities of PR19.