To DMA or Not to DMA? That is the Smart Water Question

31 Jan 2017  |  Keith Hays

Since UK water utilities began subdividing their distribution networks into sectors in the 1980s, the practice of setting up district metering areas (DMAs) has become synonymous with good management. Operators can tightly monitor flow into these areas using flow meters, and apply night-time low-flow monitoring techniques to identify leaky areas. Now they can prioritize where leakage crews are deployed, pinpoint leaks more quickly and accurately, and gain higher resolution on discrete components of their non-revenue water. Makes sense, right? Our recent focus report suggests the answer is not that simple.

While few deny the value of subdividing a network to improve leak management challenges, DMAs are not without negatives. The installation of flow meters on transmission mains and boundary valves is costly, often causing reduced hydraulic efficiency as well as water quality events. Specifically, for mature networks in dense urban environments, installing flow meters and boundary valves in sectors of 2,000 connections or smaller calls for multi-year CAPEX commitments. And other questions persist: can leaks be detected more efficiently through other methods, such as open-flow hydraulic modelling software, fixed acoustic networks, or satellite-based scanning? Will network wide deployments of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) offer a new paradigm of data-enabled leak detection. Are DMAs just a methodology pushed by water industry consultants to standardize network management, built around heavy appurtenances, cookie cutter hydraulic design, and the promise of annual water audit contracts? Are DMAs simply overkill?

A World Divided along DMA Lines

The industry overall is relatively divided into two camps: the DMA faithful, and the DMA doubters. The DMA faithful, led by UK water utilities, as well as Suez and Veolia– have promoted DMAs as fundamental to improving network intelligence. This model proliferates in Europe, and is being exported to markets such as Singapore, Chile, Brazil, and Australia. Technology vendors such as TaKaDu and i20 align their business models based on the data flows captured, or technologies required, by a DMA approach. Water consultancies such as Crowder & Co. and Miya implement their DMA-dependent water balance methodologies around the world. Major industrial players, such as Schneider Electric and Siemens, have tailored products managing sectorized networks. DMAs, as a result, have become ground zero data-wise on utilities’ journey towards operating smart water networks.

The DMA doubters represent the bulk of the world’s water networks that have taken alternative approaches to non-revenue management, using DMAs sparingly. These utilities often rely on leak detection via asset condition inspections and active leakage control programs using acoustic surveys. From their perspective, it may not be cost-effective, nor even practical to subdivide their entire networks into district metering areas. This model proliferates in the US – notoriously a non-DMA market – as well as Germany, and most of the developing world. Vendors whose products do not rely on a DMA approach include asset intelligence players Pure Technologies and Echologics, acoustic monitoring vendors Gutermann, or nascent satellite-based players such as Utilis.

The Gray Zone – Virtual DMAs

Fortunately, deciding whether to do DMAs may not be a black and white question anymore. The concept of virtual DMAs (VDMA) is coming to fruition as networks can leverage near real-time consumption data through AMI, and a suite of other technologies such as multi-parameter monitoring, ultrasonic and acoustic flow metering. VDMAs may get the best of both worlds – the leak identification ability of DMAs, without the cost and hassle of sectorization. This would essentially be a wireless leapfrogging of the physical DMAs popularized in the 1990s, representing a paradigm shift in how smart water solutions may develop in non-DMA markets such as the US. Sensor vendors Martinek Measurement Technology, meter data specialists such as Itron and Neptune, and software players Bentley Systems are already developing VDMA-oriented products and services.

The Billion Dollar Question

Leakage management remains one of the most pressing operational issues facing utilities around the world. In Europe alone, Bluefield Research estimates that non-revenue water costs utilities more than US$10 billion annually. With average leakage levels in the US on par or higher than their European counterparts, the decision to set up DMAs or not becomes a billion dollar question.

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Keith Hays is Vice President and co-founder, and Will Maize is Senior Analyst at Bluefield Research, a market research and insight firm focused exclusively on supporting companies addressing opportunities in water. Bluefield offers individual reports, and research services, on smart water utility and vendor strategies, as well as CAPEX forecasts for municipal water and wastewater markets.