Analysis

Insight: The impact of COVID-19 on the utilities industry

Xylem Metrology Business’ emerging markets VP Dominique Lerouge on dealing with mounting work orders as critical infrastructure issues are addressed

As we begin to emerge from a global pandemic that has shaken the entire world and subsequently unleashed a perfect storm on the utilities sector, maintaining critical water and wastewater operations to safeguard our most precious resource has never been more important.

The Middle East and North Africa region is known to be one of world’s most water-scarce, with limited renewable freshwater resources at the core of this issue. While these issues are not new to us in the utilities sector, the post Covid-19 world poses new challenges as work orders continue mounting to address critical infrastructure issues that are contributing negatively towards reducing Non-Revenue Water (NRW).

NRW not only impacts revenue streams, but it can also have a serious impact on operational expenses, and the environment. The first step in addressing non-revenue water is ensuring accurate meter readings. From unmetered water and inaccurate billing to delayed customer leak detection resulting in higher leak forgiveness costs to unauthorized use, apparent loss can cause revenue instability. Within your distribution system, water leaks, bursts and overflows also create costly problems.

Add to this a reduced workforce due to social distancing measures, and it really is an unprecedented time for utility companies. Ensuring continuity of operations has become a critically important new challenge to address.

When it comes to safety – a key concern among utilities – safeguarding employees, customers and communities amid this pandemic, and pandemics of the future will require a renewed framework for mitigation planning that will include infectious diseases as a key consideration.

One way to mitigate the strains of our newfound operational norm is through the introduction of a Smart Water Network. Smart Water Networks centre on leveraging the power of data — through sensors, real-time monitoring, data analytics, and system modelling — to inform better system-level decisions today, while strategizing future outcomes for operations, maintenance, and capital planning. By better understanding the performance of existing assets, utilities are empowered to focus their limited resources in the areas that need it most.

Where there are fewer utility staff members to deal with an ever-growing workload, Smart Water Networks are an increasingly important part of the solution. By providing greater visibility, mitigation, and resilience to critical water and wastewater utility systems, these solutions can be a force multiplier for talented but stretched teams of operators.

The global crisis has indeed pushed us to step up our operational proficiency. The utilities of the future must bear in mind a few key considerations as a basis upon which to flourish. These include:

Visibility

During remote working, maintaining full visibility over assets is imperative. If your standard workflows require your team to keep an eye on your assets in person or through control systems that can only be accessed on site, pushing more real-time data online can empower your staff to safely work from home while effectively monitoring — and controlling — these assets. These quick-installation, scalable solutions offer automation and intelligent alerts, providing 24/7 remote visibility and the capacity to make system adjustments as needed.

Mitigation

Every potential work order that can be prevented helps to protect workers from risk and exposure during the pandemic. Yet the COVID-19 outbreak is intensifying the regular preventative and reactive maintenance workload. Digital solutions such a as smart meters and pressure sensors can spot transients that cause water main breaks before they happen — reducing the volume of reactive maintenance callouts. The capabilities of the Sensus FlexNet communication network is another example of how customers can mitigate risks by reducing the reliance on manual meter reading. These solutions ultimately lessen demands on the workforce, and serve to improve overall service to the customers.

Resilience

During this challenging period, things may go wrong, workforce and supply chain issues will stretch utilities’ ability to maintain operational continuity, and utilities will need to repair, replace and bypass problematic equipment and infrastructure. For this reason, the resilience of water networks must be top of mind. One of the many benefits of a smart water network is in its ability to prevent potentially hazardous situations from occurring with the utilisation of data collected from various sensors. This approach is key to mitigating risks, but also for maintaining operations from both an infrastructural and management perspective.

Visibility, Mitigation and Resilience can collectively provide a roadmap to unlock the value of water information, making water and wastewater services more readily available in the world during unforeseen natural disasters or pandemics. Digital transformation can further help optimise water management, making water more affordable and accessible, as well as making communities more resilient and sustainable.

We are possibly looking at a future where pandemics and epidemics become a part of life. The utility industry must get a head of the curve and play its part in preparing infrastructure for this new reality. While we can’t be certain of exactly when the world’s recovery will begin, we can be certain of one thing – digitalisation holds the key to navigate this new world. At Sensus, a Xylem brand, we continue to strive for more knowledge sharing and action within the water sector in order to help water managers everywhere leverage the opportunities that digital technology offers.

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