When the call goes out to round up the usual suspects, the smart cities' supporting cast is starting to look familiar. There’s a traffic sensor mounted on a telephone pole, along with pollution meters, parking management systems, sophisticated energy distribution schemes and broadband connectivity for all.
Someone is missing from the roster.
“Water has real immediacy to people — a real, vital connect to their lives. There is just a certain resonance with the very nature of the infrastructure. That means water utilities are in a strong position to help implement smart technologies,” said Andrew Trump.
As director of the utility practice at global engineering, consulting and construction company Black & Veatch, Trump laid out the case for water as a key component in smart cities in the June paper 2016 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report. As 2016 drew to a close, Trump said most of the industry’s ambitions remain unrealized.
Water has yet to take a place in the roster of smart city regulars, and that is unfortunate, he said. There's much that water could do to enhance the urban fabric, and much technology could do to improve the water infrastructure.
When it comes to hydrology, the clearest smart city agenda item has to do with what the water industry calls “loss” or what laymen think of as leakage.
“We have a growing opportunity to put more and more smart sensors on the distribution system, just like in electricity and gas," he said. "Engineers want to reduce losses: The water system can be leaky and now you can put sensing technology along the system to detect where those losses are occurring.”
It’s a huge problem: Some $2.6 billion nationwide is lost as water mains leak trillions of gallons of treated drinking water each year, the EPA reported.
In addition to upgrading infrastructure with smart sensors, government could look at the citizen-facing side of smart technologies, improving the end-user experience with better water metering systems.
“Instead of just having a monthly read that says ‘you used so many gallons,’ you could give much more granular information. How much water do you use on a daily basis? Or it could send an alarm if water use is inordinately high,” Trump said.
Smart metering would have a two-fold benefit. For cities, more sophisticated meters could cut down on the time and effort needed to monitor consumption. For citizens, high-tech meters could give a better understanding of water usage and perhaps prompt behavioral changes to help conserve resources.
Because water is used across the civic spectra — by individuals and businesses, often in vast quantities — even incremental improvements in this arena could have a significant effect.
“Suppose you have customers getting more reliable information and becoming more mindful around consumption," he said. "Now let’s say the provider is more capable of preventing losses in the system. Taken together, those can be really quite meaningful.”
Water ties into other systems, for example in the energy needed to route and manage the hydraulic infrastructure. “Because of those connections, if we look at even a small change in water, it can have a really big cumulative impact,” Trump said.
While little has happened to put water on the smart cities map, there is some indication that the industry may be heading in that direction. The schedule for an upcoming smart cities symposium, for instance, includes water in a session on smart metering, and the Smart Cities Week conference in May is slated to include a session on smart water. In its research, Black & Veatch found that 48.5 percent of the municipal leaders and water providers it interviewed see water as an integral part of the smart cities planning and funding process.
For water to become a part of the smart cities conversation, utilities likely will need to engage in a bit of trial and error, installing preliminary sensors to gauge the possibilities the data may hold.
“You may just put sensors on your system and watch it for a while. Why is there certain pressure fluctuation on a certain main? Is there degradation in some section of the system?” Trump said. “This stuff may fly a little below the horizon for most people, but it is really exciting to the engineers who are a part of this.”
Going forward, those engineers likely will be looking to follow the lead of those infrastructure segments that already have staked out their place at the smart city table.
“As smart metering proliferates in electricity and gas utilities, that is going to stimulate the water utilities to learn more and to discover and explore how they can provide some of these capabilities and services,” he said.
Despite the potential, water remains largely on the fringe of the smart city agenda, Black & Veatch found. “While our survey respondents say water utilities have an integral role in developing smart cities, these plans frequently do not include water’s role in forging smart city blueprints,” they wrote. Heading into 2017, that status quo continues to hold true.
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.