Sensing profit in the water industry

There is a need for more and better on-line instrumentation but a more important current need is to be sure that we only make measurements for which there is a clear business need. Researchers, manufacturers and users should co-operate in understanding the need for measurements, the circumstances under which they will be made and how the resulting data will be used, explains Michael Scott, director of SWIG (Sensors for Water Interest Group).

The water and waste treatment industry has a large number of instruments (assets) spread over a large area. Acquiring, using and maintaining those assets for identified and quantified business benefits is a considerable challenge.

Thames Water’s magnetic flowmeter built into a roadside bollard

Dr John Layfield, business director of water at Yorkshire Water, told a recent SWIG Conference that Yorkshire Water has around 9,000 widely dispersed instruments which require a cash flow (OPEX) of £4m pa just to keep them running and a £9m pa replacement cost using a five year base. Although Yorkshire Water see it as a target for reduction they are aware that their customers cannot see compliance. Therefore systems need to be put in place so that the customer feels confident. It is no use knowing what went wrong yesterday; the key to generating confidence is to measure what is going on now, particularly in water distribution. This is a challenge since people and relationships are as important as the equipment. Ownership of the measurement equipment by the user is a vital factor in generating high quality information and Charles Excell of Thames Water feels that the major problem is to get the user to maintain and use the instruments properly. Mike Wolff of Yorkshire Water, agrees and feels that the industry is good at delivering assets into the system but not good at making the assets sweat. Keith Edwards of Anglian Water explained the scale of the problem for a company such as Anglian Water. They have 7,000 outstations and 60,000 screens and a storm in Essex can bombard a wide range of operators with information.

There is a need for much more advanced decision support analysis and an ability to predict the condition of assets so as to plan capital flows for replacement work. In general, the water companies have too much data and not enough trained people to use it properly. More investment is needed to use data more effectively and the internet may be a key feature for communication.

The lack of confidence in on-line data in the W&WT industry is a problem. Thames Water has a major installation programme of ABB Kent magnetic flowmeters underway in London aiming to provide more and better data about the process with bi-directional data and information transmission via a radio transmitter which is built into a purpose designed roadside bollard.

Laurie Reynolds of Thames Water says that integration of the data is the key issue and that there are big advantages in communicating directly with an instrument and the fast response of this particular system is already uncovering new features of activity in the distribution main. The ability to look directly at each valve, on-line flowmeter or monitor allows the organisation of maintenance from anywhere to anywhere; which is very valuable when there are so few experts about. Other water companies are following Thames Water’s lead by using Vodafone Data Network for communicating with District Meter loggers. A wireless data network avoids the high cost incurred in laying telephone wires, and provides quick and easy installation.

The connection costs are relatively low, and surprisingly, the line rental and call charges are lower than a normal telephone line. Short aerials are easily housed and mains power is not essential. Bi-directional information flow to widely distributed assets significantly increases confidence.

Single instruments can be key to safe and profitable business. For example, intake protection is extremely important to water companies and Cath Ridsdale of Yorkshire Water explained how difficult it has been to generate confidence in an absorbance monitor which was developed by Yorkshire Water.

The original installations were very unreliable due to such problems as power supply interruptions, cell and filter blockages, sample feed problems, inappropriate retention times and software faults and limitations.

This class of instrument needs support from committed and knowledgeable people. Remote access via modem is now available from all sites and a selection of flow cells with different path lengths are available, helping to deal with seasonal and climatic changes. A library of normal scans has been built up for each site and this is constantly being extended. This together with comprehensive training of operations staff in routine maintenance and alarm handling has led to greatly increased reliability of the systems and has vastly reduced the number of false alarms that are generated.

Yorkshire Water need intake protection monitors but they have a limited knowledge of the risks to which the raw water sources are exposed. Ms Ridsdale said that in the absence of a commercially available, non-specific monitor that directly measures mammalian toxicity, the Yorkshire Water derived Watersure is probably the best, most reliable broad spectrum monitor available at present and partially meets the business needs. The need to understand more about the on-line instrument is a recurring theme.

Colin Reeder of Fisher Rosemount said that they had been selling smart transmitters for ten years, with an estimated £3.5m installed base, but very few people are using the information available. He sees an unbelievable increase in functionality coming and the availability of shrink wrapped asset management packages will make it easier for users to exploit the data being made available.

Most people agree that there is going to be an explosion in data and how it is used has an important affect on user’s confidence. Ian Alexander of Northumbrian Water and John Hall of Serck Controls, both agree that the objective of a SCADA system was to reduce the number of reports and help management make decisions quicker based on up to date relevant data.

Consistent hardware and software is clearly important but use of the data is what brings business benefits and there seems to be a fact gap. Available data is climbing rapidly while skilled personnel are decreasing; however critical business decisions per week are climbing quickly. To improve confidence the business purpose of measurement data must be clear and there must be a coherent, integrated picture of the assembled data. For example, the provision of summary reports from business critical systems might reduce costs by shifting emphasis from ad-hoc reports to core business needs.

Reg Nanson, C&I manager for North West Water, in dealing with risk management, said that customer service is now seen by North West Water as more important than City expectations. Social trends are an important issue and the value of the company reputation must be considered. There are large risks in knowledge reduction (loss of people) and large technology risks in such areas as IT systems which do not deliver. There seems to be a significant culture change taking place in the management of utilities with managers needing to understand the drivers of this change if they are to achieve business targets.

One way forward is to use centralised management but with fully empowered local operation and maintenance. This sounds like management consultancy speak but tools such as the video wall at North West Water’s Warrington site, which was initially seen as a PR exercise, are now becoming valuable tools to ensure that decisions are made in the context of the overall business needs. Mr Nanson noted that people were an important issue and concluded that there is now an emphasis on skilled and motivated staff.

The problem is that the user is being presented with packets of high technology choices and the structures, time and skills necessary are not available to integrate those packets of technological excellence. There is a lot of emphasis on the need to know why measurements are made and on a need to know the lifetime cost of making those measurements. There was also much emphasis on generating confidence in the data which is being generated for an increasing range of clients. The emphasis is on the need to train, motivate and empower people.

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