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Smart water management pays off

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In 2017, Brønderslev Water Company faced a serious increase of its NRW volume. The Danish utility reacted and, with the help of Diehl Metering, succeeded at limiting its water loss to just 5% over the past three years.

When a series of serious and hard-to-identify leaks quadrupled Brønderslev Water Company’s volume of non-revenue water (NRW), action needed to be taken – and fast. The company’s leadership team turned to Diehl Metering for assistance, who helped the firm develop its LEAK365 smart meter technology. As a result, it has been able to limit its water loss to just 5% over the past three years.

Brønderslev Water Company (BWC) is wholly responsible for supplying water to the growing population of Brønderslev in Denmark. “Every year, we supply around 980,000 cubic meters of water to 16,000 consumers – all from our 365 km long water network,” said Thorkil Neergaard, CEO and managing director of the company.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 15 - November 2022
SWM Bimonthly 15

But maintaining a water network this long – a stretch which includes 140 km in urban areas and 224 km in rural areas – is no easy feat. “Non-revenue water (NRW) was becoming a growing problem,” said Neergaard. NRW is water that is produced by a utility firm but cannot be billed to the consumer because it is lost – usually as a result of leaks, but also because of ageing networks, poor metering accuracy, billing errors, manual readings or fraud.

For the fifteen years before 2016, BWC maintained its NRW rate at around 5 – 8%, well under the 10% limit enforced by Danish regulators. “In Denmark, our legislation does not permit leakage of more than 10%,” said Neergaard. “Leakages exceeding this limit are subject to pecuniary penalty – each cubic meter lost costs us one euro.”

However, at the beginning of 2016, BWC’s NRW volume began to rise. “A series of serious and hard-to-identify leaks raised water losses to around 12% in 2017, and then one month the water loss exceeded 22%,” said Neergaard. “This was unacceptable.” 

A series of serious and hard-to-identify leaks raised water losses to around 12% in 2017, and then one month the water loss exceeded 22%

A global challenge

BWC isn’t alone in its need to address NRW – in fact, it’s a global problem. According to the IWA (International Water Association), NRW represents 346 million m3/day and its financial cost exceeds 39 billion dollars a year, a number that represents nearly 50% of the average flow of the Ganges River. Across the world, water is becoming scarcer as the global population increases and climate change makes extreme weather more common. Around 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.7 billion experience water scarcity at least one month a year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages. This means the role of utilities is crucial in ensuring water is delivered as efficiently as possible to populations all over the world.

“We knew we had to change our water loss strategy as a matter of urgency,” Neergaard said. “That’s why we set an ambitious target – to limit NRW to just 5% a year.” To meet this target, the company realized it needed a better and faster way to identify new leaks in its network. “In 2015, we installed new fixed network smart meters – including remote automatic meter reading infrastructure – covering the complete area for the distribution of potable water,” said Neergaard. Reliable and accurate smart meters, installed in every household, are the basis of an efficient water network. The installation of reliable and durable meters, and the ability to maintain accuracy over their entire lifetime, help set the records straight. If measures are incomplete or fluctuating, then water network evaluation cannot be reliable. 

The role of utilities is crucial in ensuring water is delivered as efficiently as possible to populations all over the world

“We’d also begun a sectioning scheme to divide the entire water distribution network into unique and well-defined District Metered Areas (DMAs). We decided to ramp up this progress already made, and then build on it.”

Thus, in 2017, BWC began to regain full control over its infrastructure and the associated water losses. It did this with the help of Diehl Metering, a German worldwide leader in the design, manufacture and supply of smart metering solutions and related services. 

“We saw the potential of Diehl Metering’s water loss management application, so decided to use it and build on that to create a solution that would meet our own specific needs,” Neergaard said. “We called this solution LEAK365.”

A smarter solution to tackle NRW

Combined with data from BWC’s existing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, LEAK365 automatically compares the delivered volume of water in each DMA against what is sold.

“The delivered volume is measured at the entrance of the DMA in a bulk inlet meter connected to the SCADA system,” Neergaard said. “The sold volume consists of the sum of the meter readings from each household smart meter connected to the specific DMA.” Data collection is based on a reliable and high-performance communication network (AMI - Automatic Metering Infrastructure) connecting meters of the whole water network. Installed in 2015, smart meters send measurements every hour via permanently installed receivers.

This was just the start. By 2022, 22 distinct DMAs covering the complete supply area were created. This then allowed BWC to innovate further. “Earlier this year, with help from Diehl Metering, we installed a new integrated digitized system which is accessed via a web portal,” Neergaard said.

We used Diehl Metering’s water loss management application and built on it to create a solution that would meet our specific needs

The solution continuously creates ‘X-rays’ of the current leakage situation. Real-time data detects and estimates the specific water losses at each DMA 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “It is an automatic process with predefined algorithms and analytics which deliver with 100% transparency the performance of the infrastructure,” Neergaard said.

The new water loss management application reports the latest leakage levels through zone colour indicators in a digital map of the BWC water infrastructure. BWC defines green as a performance of 5% or less, orange between 5 – 7.5% and red for anything above 7.5% NRW. Thanks to color-coding, operators can immediately identify anomalies and make informed decisions to rapidly resolve the issue. Historical values for each DMA are easily accessible, including consumption profiles. Advanced reports can be created based on a specific period (weekly, monthly, or annually).

Several views of the analysed data are possible within the application. For example, it is possible to compare two different DMA’s performance during a month in a single graph. Anomalies in infrastructures are detected easily, at a glance. As each DMA stands for the total sum of all households, it represents an ideal monitoring of the entire supply network from the single inlet to many of the hundreds of household outlet meters.

The application also facilitates threshold alerts for anomalies in a specific DMA so the team can target their leakage search efforts. Moreover, users can achieve a granular level of insight, with access to information on water loss history, delivered and lost volume, consumption behaviour and pressure. These features support BWC staff in tracking the progress of the general network efficiency and water balance reporting. “As a result, we have achieved an average stable water loss of between 4.5%-5.9%,” Neergaard said.

Additional benefits

By reducing the complexity of its infrastructure – and its NRW volume too – BWC is experiencing substantial cost savings. “We have lower OPEX and improved asset management through rapid identification of leakages, reducing unsustainable losses in terms of water, machine time, energy, repair costs and downtime,” Neergaard said.

Staff benefit too. Because meter data is delivered automatically, team members no longer need to physically drive to locations to capture meter readings via their mobile devices. This means they have more time available to fix problems as they occur – and to prevent them from becoming disastrous.

Meanwhile, end-users benefit from better service. Consumers can now utilize daily smart meter readouts to monitor deviating consumption. And, because BWC is aware of a problem as soon as it happens, it can alert a consumer instantly. “Consumers face less severe breakdowns in the distribution system and quicker repair of leaks in domestic installations,” said Neergaard.

Earlier this year, with help from Diehl Metering, we installed a new integrated digitized system which is accessed via a web portal

Because water losses within households are identified and stopped immediately, flooding is prevented, which means there is less chance of damage and a reduction in insurance claims. “In addition, the household saves money on both its water and the sewage bill,” said Neergaard. “All of this contributes to improved customer satisfaction.”

In fact, the entire population of Brønderslev is seeing advantages. “New leaks are rapidly identified, leading to diminished complications in terms of infrastructure,” said Neergaard. “There’s less need to repair streets, boardwalks or pipes, so there’s less disruption to traffic – and fewer delays as a result.”

Last but not least, the team at BWC feel better equipped to meet their environmental objectives and be more sustainable in the long term. “We have linked our strategic goal of a maximum water loss of 5% to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation – to demonstrate, among other things, how our daily operations are related to, and support, the sustainable development process and the green transition of the society,” said Neergaard. “Reducing water losses means we can protect our natural resource and empower a far more sustainable future.”

If other water companies followed suit, enormous progress could be made. According to the IWA, if the total amount of NRW were reduced by just one-third, the savings would be sufficient to supply 800 million people. That’s why governments and enforcement agencies are tightening regulations, and setting targets that require increasing intervention. Digital solutions, which can pinpoint problems before they become too expensive and disruptive to fix, are obviously key solutions to protect water resources.

An innovative future lies ahead

While his success with this project has been impressive, Neergaard isn’t resting on his laurels. In the not-too-distant future, he hopes to investigate what’s possible when combining different data sets into even smarter and more integrated digital solutions.

“To ensure we maintain – and even improve on – the low levels of water loss we have achieved so far, while, at the same time, securing and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations, we look to the new smart possibilities that are continuously being investigated and evaluated,” Neergaard said.

One way Neergaard and his team hope to achieve this is by monitoring night flow. “Data from the SCADA system continuously records the water flow into each DMA, and so for each DMA we hope to define a limit for minimum night flow, helping us to identify new leaks,” Neergaard said.

According to the IWA, if the total amount of NRW were reduced by just one-third, the savings would be sufficient to supply 800 million people

Smart temperatures are another avenue that Neergaard is keen to explore. “An example is the use of temperature data from the smart meters to set up a machine learning algorithm to identify and localize new leaks within the DMAs even quicker based on unexpected variances in the water temperature in the distribution network.” “We aim to use semantic modelling for the precise prediction of water consumption,” he said

Finally, Neergaard believes that the smart use of data can help BWC improve water quality. “For many years, we have been running a water quality monitoring program called ‘Bactiquant’, which measures the total bacteria present in the distribution network,” he said. “This knowledge helps us to track and delineate pollution events caused by, among other things, leaks. By integrating this data in LEAK365, we believe we can do even more to improve water quality for generations to come.”