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Northumbrian Water's project to reduce storm overflow spills is first of its kind in the UK

  • Northumbrian Water's project to reduce storm overflow spills is first of its kind in the UK
    Credit: Northumbrian Water

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Northumbrian Water
Northumbrian Water Limited is a water company in the UK, providing mains water and sewerage services in the English counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and parts of North Yorkshire, and also supplying water as Essex and Suffolk Water.

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Northumbrian Water has started a ground-breaking £20m project which is set to significantly reduce spills from storm overflows across Tyneside.

The project, which is set to be the first of its kind in the UK, will see a combination of new technology, sensors and AI analytics used to lower the risk of overflows happening and is based upon research and proven techniques used in the United States.

In South Bend, Indiana, the smart sewer technology – sensors, AI analytics, control measures – were installed in a section of wastewater network with the aim of reducing the number of spills from storm overflows. Over a 10 year period, they saw an 80% reduction in the amount of spills with a combination of smart controls and targeted investment.

Here in the UK, storm overflows are used by water companies and in countries across the world during times of heavy rainfall in order to prevent sewer flooding from taking place in customers’ homes. They act as a relief valve on the wastewater network, and they are used with Environment Agency consent to protect homes from the devastation that can be caused by internal flooding.

The ‘smart sewer’ project is revolutionary in that it will allow Northumbrian Water to make changes to the flow and direction of wastewater (which contains a dilute mix of sewage, rainwater, run-off from roads and fields, and water from sinks, showers and appliances) moving it around the sewer network, and making spills less likely to happen.

Using a mix of AI technology and hundreds of smart sensors placed along sewer pipes, it will predict when and where rain is about to hit in the region and when and where the sewer networks are more likely to reach capacity and spill.

It will then automatically balance the flows of the network, diverting this wastewater to the emptier parts of the network, managing capacity and reducing the likelihood of spills taking place. The technology will also identify areas where additional capacity is needed, allowing further targeted investments to be made to build alternative storage for rainwater where it is needed most.

This real-time decision support system will be powered by a digital twin – which is a digital version of the physical sewer network which runs ahead of time and gives Northumbrian Water more control over the system and the chance to make changes before spills happen.

The “smart sewer” will be carried out in partnership with HydroDigital, and will help to reduce the impact of storm overflows on the region’s rivers and keep the high standards of the region’s bathing waters – with 32 of the region’s 34 bathing water currently meeting Defra’s top two standards of Excellent and Good. 

Nigel Watson, Information Services Director at Northumbrian Water, said: “This is an exciting and really innovative project which is set to completely revolutionise the way that our network operates, and maybe even how our industry works as a whole. 

“We are determined to be at the forefront when it comes to using clever new technology to protect our rivers and coasts as much as possible. This could be a massive step for us towards reducing how we use storm overflows. 

“We know that we, like all water companies, need to do better when it comes to managing how storm overflows operate – and this, along with other innovations and projects we are working on, is set to be a huge step forward in protecting our environment, whilst continuing to protect homes and businesses from flooding.” 

Luis Montestruque, Principal at HydroDigital, added: “With two decades of exclusive experience building smart sewer systems, we're proud to partner with Northumbrian Water on this ground-breaking project.  

“This initiative is pioneering in its use of AI for design, advanced hybrid digital twin technology, innovative stress avoidance routing control, and use of probabilistic weather forecasting.  

“It stands out for its large number of sensors and globally coordinated control points and one of the most aggressive implementation timelines in the industry.

“This project will set a global standard in how water companies use smart sewer technology to reduce spills at a fraction of the cost and time needed by traditional engineering solutions.” 

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