Water Utilities Wave In Smart City Technology

The topic of smart cities is well known for its complexity. Converging people, policy, hardware, software, connectivity, data and analytics across public and private sectors can be overwhelming. So as a smart cities generalist, I found it refreshing to get a more focused perspective at ACE22, the industry smart water conference hosted in San Antonio by the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Here are a few takeaways from the event.

Clarity Inspires Cooperation

I was pleasantly surprised at attendees’ level of enthusiasm about smart city technology. From quality control to pressure and flow level detection to aging pipe infrastructure to customer engagement, there was a consistent ethos of “smart city technology can help us do this better.” Discussion centered on best practices related to implementation and communication, both across departments and with end consumers. 

Instead of the polite antagonism between municipal leaders and industry, there was a spirit of curiosity, excitement and mutual respect. From panel presentations to the expo floor, I witnessed a constant exchange of information and ideas. 

Sure, the positive atmosphere was influenced by the fact that this was the first in-person gathering since the pandemic, but I soon came to understand that people who choose to work in this sector are unique. Water overcomes human-made boundaries, flowing across city limits and state lines. Perhaps this extends to how people work to deliver this critical resource. While utilities may be jurisdictional, I witnessed a spirit of cross-sector camaraderie not always present in traditional smart city conversations. 

Purity of Mission

Across many presentations, I got the sense that those who work in the water industry understand their singular objective – to provide consistent and reliable access to clean water. Even those with the most specialized expertise expressed an understanding of the big picture and this common goal seemed to bind everyone together.

Another repeated theme was the notion that regardless of political affiliation, those who work in water are natural conservationists. Erica Herman at Badger Meter made a compelling presentation on the role of data in supporting reduced usage. It was clear from her real-world examples that if we aren’t careful stewards of one of the planet’s most precious resources – water – everyone loses.

As municipalities move to deploy intelligent water networks, advocate for the capital investment required and work to maintain the value of that investment, I sensed that the industry views smart city technology as transformational and necessary.

Water Utilities Embrace Digitalization

The source of many technical conversations swirled around water use efficiency and resource management. Panels like the one titled “Ready or Not, IoT is Here” led by Robert Laird with Woodard & Curran, delivered a continuity of smart city themes and benefits centered on how data-driven intelligence supports service delivery, asset management, infrastructure management and maintenance and remote operations. There was great emphasis on the importance of system interoperability as well as cautious advice that “data integration is the most involved step.”

Battery-powered cellular technology also took center stage. Automating manual meter reading via wireless connection increases the flow of real-time data which impacts departments all along service delivery by increasing accuracy, decreasing maintenance issues, and enhancing the communication. Modernizing Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) infrastructure also removed the obligation of being beholden to bespoke communications networks which are costly to deploy and maintain. 

Participating in an AMI demo on-campus at San Antonio Water System (SAWS) hosted by Itron helped to bring the concepts to life. Groups across industry and government problem solved together, attempting but failing to break the hardware with sand fills and water blasts, testing every aspect of the software and data delivery. The level of teamwork was refreshing. When challenged with a question from the audience about core challenges, a senior leader replied, “The only thing that went wrong is that we didn’t do this earlier.”

A Focus on End Consumers

Equity around service delivery was not an afterthought at this conference. There was an embedded seriousness that access to water is closely linked to survival, especially for vulnerable populations. People can live without many municipal services, however inconvenient. Water is not one of them. From weather-related disasters to anomaly detection, from system failures to quality control issues, there is no room for error.

On a less threatening scale, translating the value of smart city investment was also a central theme. There was an impressive understanding that accurate data can contribute to more streamlined customer relationships. (For some water utilities, their billing feature is combined with the electric utility, creating an extra step between the origin and the end consumer.) Informed communication can support mutually beneficial outcomes – if customers have a more accurate understanding of their water usage, they may use less, resulting in lower bills as well as greater conservation.

And although this is a bit of a stretch, increased satisfaction between city residents and their local water utility may be a way to wade into the deep end of public trust in government. It is important to find new entry points for citizens and residents to experience surprise and delight that the government is listening and serving their interests. Could water utilities be an overlooked point of public engagement? It is worth considering.

Blowing Off Steam

To counteract the sober urgency of the work, there was an intentional lighthearted, buoyant vibe throughout my days at ACE22. There was the Pipe Fitting Competition where teams of men and women donning hardhats and screen-printed t-shirts raced against the clock for the coveted first place prize. Congratulations to the Big D Lady Tappers (Texas) and SADM Apodaca (Mexico) by the way. And if that wasn’t enough, conference attendees could check out the “petworking” sessions. Yes that’s right – ACE22 included encounters with puppy and kitty cams as well as jellyfish and birds of prey. Yes, I’m serious.

I also heard a bit of good-natured chuckling from attendees that they are used to electric power utilities receiving the bulk lot of attention in the smart cities space. People who work in water quietly and humbly maintain and manage the distribution of one of the world’s most essential assets – a feat that deserves massive respect. It was a good reminder that often the most important things are often the things we take for granted.

I feel lucky to have a few days to deep dive into the water industry. There was so much to do and learn, including the fact that no one says “leak” anymore. When talking about aging pipes and anomaly detection, the updated term is “continuous usage.”

In all seriousness, I am grateful for the commitment that people who work in this sector demonstrate. The water industry is prepared to handle the pressure of effecting change to protect our future. Smart city technology will offer continuous opportunities to support the effective and efficient management of our natural resources, most importantly, water.