A move from reactive to proactive with new gear

Responding efficiently to water network failures is all well and good - but is it enough? Dean Stiles discovers how Yorkshire Water is making the culture shift from reactive to proactive, and how using the very latest technology is crucial to its plan.

Water companies like to think of themselves as incredibly good at responding to network failures. It is a very British approach to running a business associated with maintaining ageing assets.

But Yorkshire Water aims to change from this reactive approach towards its assets to a proactive one. “We want to prevent our infrastructure from failing in the first place,” says Stephen Herndlhofer, the company’s implementation manager. It is a formidable challenge in an industry that has seen little change in 50 years, apart from the use of high-visibility jackets and hard hats, he adds.

Cultural shift

“We cannot expect to resolve every failure in the network but what we can do is manage our infrastructure proactively so that we prevent the failure in the first place, and what we’ve got left, we deal with in the most cost-effective and least- impactful way as possible,” Herndlhofer says.

Changing the mindset of “out of sight out of mind” and to thinking in terms of preventing failure in the first place requires a cultural shift within organisations like water companies, he says. “We have to manage our people in order to prevent that failure, and by providing them with data and information about our underground infrastructure, treat it as if it were an asset we can see.”

To achieve this, Yorkshire Water has embraced new practices and adopted a range of new technologies developed in close collaboration with various partners. Since 2005, Yorkshire Water has targeted its aspiration for zero supply interruptions, and in the past four years the number of properties interrupted has reduced from 700,000 in 2004-2005 to last year’s out-turn of 169,000.

Simon Barnes, head of innovation delivery at Yorkshire Water, says: “Our journey toward zero supply interruptions has been enabled by collaborating with our service partners to deliver innovation and business process, and also by working within our own departments to deliver new and innovative ways of working.”

A number of key initiatives taken with partners, including Balfour Beatty Utility Services, Morrison Construction, Laing O’Rourke and H2O, have enabled Yorkshire Water to develop and implement a variety of new initiatives and technologies.

The company is to replace its hydrants with a new design, through flow hydrant, developed in collaboration with Crane, as part of its plans to deploy these new technologies in the water industry. “The new hydrant is a key enabler as we move forward. It unlocks our network and enables us to deploy new technologies,” Herndlhofer says.

The new hydrant is more expensive, but has the valve offset, unlike traditional hydrants, which enables equipment like cameras, sealing plug technology, and other devices and monitoring equipment to be more easily inserted into water mains. The prototype valve is currently under test and approval for use by Yorkshire Water.

Barnes says: “Innovation is the difference between a leader and a follower, and we intend to lead this industry. It’s not just about kudos, it’s about attracting the partners like those we have now that could help us with our challenges as we move forwards.”

These new technologies allow Yorkshire Water to know what is happening out there in the asset base and will enable the company to change from being reactive to problems and to adopt a proactive stance towards asset management, he says. “This innovation through collaboration is a big mantra – but it’s more than just ‘here’s a new piece of technology’, it is about how you adapt that technology and bring that into the organisation; how you change your culture and business process,” Barnes says.

The new technologies include Aquastop, a joint development with Crane Building Services, Morrison Utilities and H20 Water Services; Platelet pipe leak-sealing technology developed for use in the water industry in partnership with Brinker Technologies; and optical and sound equipment to gather asset information on buried water pipelines under development with Balfour Beatty Utility Services and Technium OpTIC (Opto-electronics Technology and Incubation Centre).

Yorkshire Water has also adopted innovative new computer systems that enable it to respond to customer demand for water in real time. Interconnectors enable the company to operate its distribution system as a single entity controlled by a system, called the Real Time Water Resource Allocation Plan or RT-wrap.

This automatically predicts supply and demand, and controls water flows accordingly, selecting the cheapest sources of water to treat and distributing this with minimal use of pumping. This has reduced chemical costs and lowered energy consumption.

Underlying these systems are projects like RT-net, the replacement of manual downloaded loggers with GPRS-enabled devices.

These provide real-time visibility of the performance of the distribution system and will in the future allow predictive modelling technology to be applied, says Allyson Seth, research and development project manager at Yorkshire Water.

Useable information

Some 1,800 loggers have been installed in the first two phases of this project with 4,000 in total, covering 65% of the population in the area, due to be installed by the end of the year. Turning the data from these loggers into useable information is the challenge and Yorkshire Water has been involved in a two-year research and development project with Sheffield University to develop its Automated Data Analysis system.

This detects pipe bursts but is also sensitive to small changes and low-level leakage. The system removes reliance on customer contact for notification of leaks, and allows prioritisation of leak repairs depending on severity.

This will be further enhanced by Neptune, a £2.7M, three-year joint venture research and development project started in May 2007 and due to be piloted later this year. Neptune will allow the company to evaluate an incident and identify the result of any number of different interventions. It also allows operators to evaluate different what if scenarios.

Employing this sort of technology, seen as key to meeting challenges like leak reduction, is innovation through collaboration, says Barnes. “No one organisation or individual will achieve any of the things we have set out to do alone. Our aim is to attract other organisations so that we can work with them achieve these our goals.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie