Water Systems Need Their iPhone Moment

Smarter systems will help utilities cope with the demands of aging infrastructure.

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Your customers expect flawless service and don’t hesitate to complain when problems arise. Yet they understand little of the work you do.

Leaks plague water utilities with both operational and reputational problems. Maintenance and diagnosis usually entails costly excavation works. As a result, most utilities are in a constant search for ways to be smarter — to know about (and fix) problems before the customer sees the effect, to better predict and more accurately map leakages to reduce losses and hone maintenance issues, to go from reactive to proactive.

But when up against increasing demands and often aging infrastructure, that’s easier said than done. It’s unlikely we’ll get there with piecemeal improvements either — the industry needs a radical innovation moment that shakes up the fundamentals of how things work. Much like the iPhone did to the mobile phone market in 2007. And, as it turns out, valves are a good place to start.

Tough times

A “smart” approach has long been on the industry’s wish list, but it becomes increasingly important day by day.

As populations grow around the world, placing ever-greater demands on water infrastructure, and climate change increases incidences of extreme weather such as drought, smarter approaches to water will become even more pressing.

Of course, there has been innovation and improvement in the water sector over the years. But it has been an incremental kind, tweaking engineering designs and adding a patchwork of digital assets, such as pressure sensors here and there.

This incremental approach is crucial — as was the progression through Nokia 3210, 3310, 3410 — but now it’s time for the iPhone moment, something that makes a much more radical, lasting and digital change.

Getting smart

Now though, we are at inflection point where the need for digitalization is pressing and the technology is becoming mature enough to meet that need.

A smart system must be proactive, not reactive. That means predicting, identifying and (preferably) fixing problems before they affect customers, or if that’s not possible, communicating ahead of time that there will be disruption.

This applies to leaks, but also to water quality. At the moment, water quality is typically tested by taking samples from the tap and packing it off to a lab. There is no visibility within the distribution infrastructure.

So, imagine a system where problems are identifiable and fixable before they reach the customer, where problems could be spotted and located to a fine level of granularity, making maintenance and repairs easier, cheaper and more efficient. Such a system would allow utilities to optimize their systems against multiple parameters across the breadth of their network.

That would represent an iPhone moment, fundamentally altering the relationship utilities have with their infrastructure.

The next generation of pressure-reducing valves is one crucial technology for realizing this vision. Pressure-reducing valves have been around for over a century, only recently undergoing significant innovation from an engineering standpoint. Now, however, they are undergoing a second, digital transformation.

Modern pressure-reducing valves are equipped with sensors, collecting information on metrics such as pressure and even water quality. Crucially — thanks to modern, more affordable battery, communication, and energy-harvesting technologies — these can now feed this information back to the control room for analysis and action. For example, if leaks are detected, the valve can be controlled remotely to reduce pressure and therefore losses. PRVs will be the smart valves at the center of an intelligently optimized and controlled network, used to deliver fine pressure control in any way needed.

The smartest systems will then use technologies such as analytics and machine learning to constantly analyze that incoming stream of data to optimize maintenance schedules and asset replacement and even predict problems before they occur.

In a flash, utilities that implement such a system would find themselves managing lit networks rather than dark ones, enjoying visibility and control that they never had before.


Water infrastructure upgrades are expensive and time-consuming; creating truly smart networks is not a trivial matter. However, this would represent an iPhone moment in another respect: Once the radical shift is made, the market can return to incremental innovation. The first iPhone may have been a revolution, but the subsequent models have been evolutions since.

Once a data-rich, sensor-soaked network is in the ground, utilities will be able to more easily implement incremental upgrades over time. Connectivity means that software and firmware can potentially be upgraded without excavation and the control room can invest in evermore advanced analytics.

A lot has been written about topics such as the industrial internet of things, or IIoT. Undoubtedly, we stand to gain a great deal as societies from smart factories, grids and cities. But a smarter approach to water is an equally important step. With modern valve, sensor, communication, battery and energy-harvesting technologies, forward-thinking utilities are poised to take it. By doing so, we stand to cut leakages and improve water quality.


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