It’s All about the Data. Are Remote Monitoring and IoT Solutions the Key to Addressing Water Infrastructure Issues?

19 Jun 2023  |  Chloé Meyer

It is no secret that water utilities face mounting regulatory, financial, and environmental pressures to increase the surveillance and control of their systems. U.K. utilities, in particular, have been faced with large fines in recent years due to overflow and spill incidents. In April 2023, Anglian Water was hit with a £2.65 million fine for discharging untreated effluent into the North Sea. The latest figures from the U.K.’s Environment Agency recorded a total of over 300,000 sewage spills in England in 2022.

To address this issue, a £10 million tender closed in May 2023 for the mass deployment of around 20,000 flow and level sensors in Anglian Water’s service area. This deployment aims to cut sewage pollution incidents by improving the monitoring of remote network assets. Remote monitoring can provide better, more accurate real-time data and alarm systems to inform water utilities when a discharge is occurring and help them address the problem. 

The remote monitoring segment is one of the fastest growing segments of digital water, with 14% CAGR through 2030, compared to 8.8% for digital water in general. Short-term adoption is driven by advanced economies in Asia Pacific, Europe, North America, and the Gulf states, as well as large urban centers in Latin America, India, China, South-East Asia. But how does it work, why hasn’t remote monitoring been implemented more broadly, and where is the opportunity?

The use of remote monitoring technologies often starts with key vertical assets like plants and pump stations, before expanding into the networks with flow monitors or fixed leak detection. 

The integration of sensors with communication technologies and data analytics enables water utilities to monitor assets closely and react more rapidly to identified issues, leading to improved overall performance and efficiency of operations. Pressured to do more with less, water utilities and operators recognize that it is essential to optimize visibility of their assets through evenly distributed sensors and reliable data. 

While remote monitoring allows the utility to monitor operational issues such as overflows, pressure transients, and water quality, it also supports the surveillance of asset health through parameters like vibration or temperature (i.e., via sensors on a pump) driving preventive and/or predictive maintenance decisions. This data constitutes critical information given that emergency maintenance costs around 3 times more than planned maintenance. The ability to monitor how their assets are performing can help a water utility optimize its capital and operational expenditures. 

The ability to monitor how assets are performing can help a water utility optimize its capital and operational expenditures.

The data obtained can also be leveraged to help utilities to meet regulatory requirements, such as conservation goals and quality standards. Furthermore, the increased transparency and accessibility of certain data provided through remote monitoring can contribute to improving public trust and engagement. In January 2023, the British utility Thames Water launched a near real-time map of its 468 event-duration monitors, showing where sewer overflows have occurred in an attempt at transparency after being called out for spills. 

However, the implementation of remote monitoring in water and wastewater networks faces various challenges from technical hurdles to people-related bottlenecks. 

The increasing volume of data gathered, via remote monitoring, can lead to security concerns as utilities must ensure the protection of their assets against malicious act. A lack of standardization and interoperability can hamper deployment of further remote monitoring systems, if those systems are unable to operate within a utility’s existing architecture. 

The human element must not be understated. Some utilities are having difficulties shifting to remote monitoring because of a lack of digital culture. The municipal water sector has historically been risk-adverse, which often presents a barrier to innovation adoption and process changes. 

While remote monitoring alleviates the burden of physically monitoring the asset, it nonetheless creates new tasks that require new capacities related to data management and analytics. Control rooms, and the constant surveillance of assets, also constitute an overwhelming and stressful environment, which can lead to digital solutions fatigue. Finally, the highly siloed nature of utility management limits data circulation and remains a core obstacle to global digital transformation. It is essential that these challenges are addressed and resolved to ensure the continued growth and success of remote monitoring in water and wastewater networks. 

Many water utilities still struggle to leverage data into critical decision-making processes, and mismanaged practices can make remote monitoring useless. To address this, a growing roster of software and service firms are launching data management, integration, and visualization platforms to drive more holistic insights. Utilities’ investments in such platform will accelerate by over 15% annually through 2030 as digital maturity increases, marking a shift towards predictive analytics and proactive, reliability-centered maintenance regimes. 

Remote monitoring is a highly fragmented segment, which is full of opportunities. 

The fragmentation of the remote monitoring market results from the plethora of applications, and consequently hardware, software, and services solutions, that it covers. Core players are manufacturers of monitors and sensors, whether for flow, level, rainfall, quality surveillance, or for leak detection and pressure monitoring. Telemetry and SCADA vendors allow for the transmission of acquired information, with dataloggers and remote terminal units (RTUs). IoT software players also offer a number of products, ranging from water platforms—whether specific to a sensor, or agnostic —to larger water ecosystems integrating GIS or hydraulic modelling, to cloud service providers. 

As a core growth segment, remote monitoring is targeted by several established solutions providers as well as new market entrants, which often dynamically integrate into the larger ecosystem of digital water. Bluefield specializes in helping companies navigate this overwhelming space and seize opportunities, answering key questions such as: 

  • How to define a business development strategy for telemetry?
  • What is the growth potential of the data-as-a-service model?
  • Where do the digital water M&A opportunities lay?  

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