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Worker in safety workwear inspecting a water system

Data flow from water meters provides South East Water with smart insights and savings

Water is perhaps Australia’s most precious resource – and yet a pioneering digital initiative by South East Water, which is based in outer Melbourne, suggests that up to 5 per cent of households may have an undiagnosed leak, costing customers money and wasting water.

To rein in the risk of bill-shock and also preserve precious water resources, as of September 2021, South East Water has installed almost 30,000 digital meters to households across Melbourne’s south east.

Not only are these numbers higher than any other metropolitan Melbourne-based utility, but it’s currently one of Australia’s largest digital meter rollouts.

These are IoT ‘digital meter’ devices, connected via 5G, to the Microsoft Azure cloud.

Digital meter technology saves water and money

Analysing the data from those meters, South East Water discovered up to 5 per cent of customers had undetected water leaks. Fixing those leaks early saved more than 63 million litres of water, and shaved a total of $260,000 from affected customers’ bills.

For one household in Frankston the digital platform identified a leaking underground pipe between the water meter and the house. Ongoing and excessive water use was identified by South East Water’s digital contact team which alerted the home owner. In a single billing period that rapid action saved around 280,000 litres of water and $1,100 on the bill.

And the potential for savings is significant, with South East Water managing over 26,000 km of pipeline, 368 pump stations, eight water recycling plants and over $4 billion worth of infrastructure and assets. It serves around 850,000 premises across its network.

Digital meter technology connected to a water pipe
South East Water has installed almost 30,000 IoT ‘digital meter’ devices across Melbourne’s south east (Source: South East Water)

Proven technology applied at scale

South East Water has now developed a roadmap that will see it deploy even more digital meters – saving customers money, preserving water and boosting its network insights and overall efficiency.

By turning digital water meters into IoT edge devices, that record data every 30 minutes and transmit this daily, South East Water can monitor and optimise the network. Data about flow, pressure and temperature has allowed it to detect leaks in homes and service lines, and provides data driven insights that improve service delivery, minimise disruption, prolong asset life and improve customer experience.

Leaks in the water mains network are detected using Sotto vibration sensors. This technology takes vibration snapshots overnight, when there is less water use, and by comparing that to a baseline it’s possible to identify likely leaks.

Working with digital meter manufacturers, South East Water and its technology subsidiary IOTA, was able to turn digital water meters into data sources, collect telemetry over a cellular connection (5G or narrowband IoT networks) and upload that securely to Microsoft Azure.

Using artificial intelligence it can interpret the data to identify issues like leaks, empty pipes, continuous or excessive usage, meter tampering, and meter technical issues. A dashboard displays the results to the network operations team which can then take any action needed.

Tackling a multi-billion-dollar problem

Water management is a global issue – estimates suggest that around $14 billion worth of water is lost from networks each year. Meanwhile, ageing water assets mean that Australia alone will have to spend around $600 billion over the next decade on replacing and managing pipelines and water assets*.

According to Salah Rubaie, enterprise architecture and development manager at South East Water; “Customers want utilities to do their best to minimise leaks and breaks and reduce water waste.

With this solution there is no manual reading of meters, it’s all digitally enabled via IoT technology over 5G and into the Azure IoT platform that we call the South East Water Digital Hub.

“We have integrated with multiple telecommunications providers allowing us to collect the data and also send configuration directly to meters. The system is integrated with our billing system, with our CRM, asset register and geographical information system so we have a true end to end capability.”

Further, Rubaie said that the solution has improved the customer experience significantly and will help South East Water prolong asset life, minimise emergency maintenance costs and after-hours charges as issues will be able to be tackled proactively rather than reactively.

Smart technology managed by smart people

By analysing the data from the meters South East Water is able to identify unusual demand that might signify a leak. For example an unusually high demand for water in the middle of the afternoon might be someone filling their pool – but if that high demand continues over several nights between 2am and 4am in the morning then it warrants further investigation.

Rubaie adds that South East Water is planning to use machine learning algorithm, to determine the type of leak being detected by the Sotto sensors, for example if it is on the main, or on customer’s service pipe. This will analyse data from both the digital meter and the Sotto sensors deployed across the mains network

After the initial ten-month program of work that proved the value of the solution, South East Water has continued to deploy digital meters that can operate as IoT devices.

Group of adults in safety workwear inspecting a waste technology demonstration
South East Water is collaborating to other utility organisations in order to rapidly scale their digital capabilities (Source: South East Water)

Offering expertise and innovative ideas to everyone

South East Water has always had a collaborative approach when it comes to its digital meter program, it wants to support the entire community, not just its own. It is reaching out to other utilities, via its wholly-owned subsidiary IOTA, so that they can rapidly scale their digital capabilities.

It is working with Microsoft and plans to offer the IoT platform, under the name Lentic, to help them turn their digital water meters into IoT edge devices.

Lentic is designed to ingest data from digital meters and sensors, via Azure IoT Hub, store it in Azure and then make insights available through Power BI.

With the twin benefits of water and cost savings, it’s a solution that helps both people and the planet.