Into the Black Box – Water distribution in Europe


Interview with Erik Driessen, Innovation Manager of the dutch drinking water utility „Vitens“ about Europe‘s leaky pipes and the new initiative „Smart Water for Europe“

Erik Driessen, Innovation Manager at “Vitens” vitens

SCC: Mr. Driessen what concerns you most, when you think about the future of drinking water distribution in Europe?
Driessen: The biggest challenge for water utilities lies in infrastructure being relatively old; most of the pipes need urgent replacement. The biggest challenge in that challenge is that nearly all the water infrastructure is underground. Based on statistics and on life time predictions we know that in some years a majority of the parts will get to the end of their life. But what we don‘t know is exactly which parts will fail when.

The situation nowadays – pretty boldly explained – is: We clean water, we pump it to the pipes so that it reaches the households. And what happens in between is more or less a black box. There is a lot of real time data missing of what is happening with the water on it‘s way from us to our customers.

SCC: How do you want to change that?

The Vitens Innovation Playground in the province of Friesland. Lower left is the town of Leeuwarden and in the middle the water treatment plant of Noardburgum. vitens

Driessen: Two years ago, we started the „Vitens Innovation Playground“ in Friesland. It‘s an area where we test new monitoring methods with about 2,000 km2 pipeline serving around 200,000 households. Here, we invited technology provides, universities and all kinds of other experts that might have solutions for us to demonstrate. Now, two years later, the distribution network is equipped with all kinds of sensors and different ICT solutions that we try in parallel just to find out which elements we could need to be ready for the future.

Twitter versus water leaks

SCC: So, what is „state of the art“ in tracking leaks?
Driessen:  This very moment we are thinking about big data analysis. Data sources which are already available like in social media; Facebook and Twitter. We have some application that are looking at Twitter continuously and filtering words like „water“, „accident“, „leakage“, „Vitens“. In those big data analysis files we also put in external data sources like weather forecasts or actual weather conditions. Then we also look at fast response strategies. Because you can have the best equipped network, if you don‘t react fast enough, you can skip the whole monitoring being real time.

But where we want to go to is a proactive and sometimes also preventative system. A system which tells us that there is somewhere a leakage before the customer notices it. Or even, before the leak appears. We are working on a system that tell us where there might be a leak in ten minutes or an hour. Just by seeing patterns in earlier events. By having smart algorithms and having smart ICT that learns and that helps us see new events coming.

SCC: Since January, Vitens is working together with other water utilities in Europe in an initiative called „Smart Water for Europe“. What is the goal of the initiative?
Driessen: We are doing more or less what we have been doing at our „Innovations Playground“ but now combining our findings with other testing fields in the UK, Spain and France. All the demonstration sites have their specific experience their specific local challenges which we can share and so learn from each other. And also very important: Employees that where active at our demonstration site do have business entrance at the other demonstration sites.

Treatment plant for drinking water at the “Acciona Agua” demonstration site in Caceres, south of Madrid. Other demonstration sites are run by “Thames Water” (UK) and University of Lille (France). Acciona Agua

SCC: When will you apply your findings to the „real world“?

Driessen: Already people from other operations see things happen at our projects and ask us: „If you can see leakages being detected within an hour, we want to have it.“ So organizations are picking the diamonds from our projects already. I think this new way of water supply will be fully operational in, let‘s say, ten to 20 years. And maybe you think that is a long time but there are some factors that are really delaying that intelligent water supply. And the most important one is legislation.

There is an EU directive which tells you to take samples of the water, to bring it to the laboratory and have it checked for different parameters. It takes us two days until we have the results. We believe that real time sensors would be a much more powerful, and a much quicker tool to build a reliable water supply. When it comes to water quality, now our first sensors are the people at home. Although quality incidents occur rarely and our customers can rely on safe and healthy tapwater, it doesn‘t sound right. That is not how it should be when you compare it to rest of the food and beverage industry. There is always a quality check when the product leaves the factory. And our quality check is two days later.

Towards a sustainable loss

SCC: A study of TaKaDu, an international water monitoring company, deducts that countries with low water tariffs have high water losses. In a way you could say: Where water prices are too low, water is treated in an unsustainable way, also by water utilities. Do you agree with this conclusion?
Driessen: I don‘t agree at all. We have relatively low water tariffs in the netherlands. Around one euro per cubic meter. And we have one of the lowest non-revenue water figures of the world maybe. We have about five to six percent of non-revenue water. I think, what they are going for is: When you are loosing to little revenue there is no incentive to invest in your assets to make it better.

SCC: Exactly. So it would be cheaper just to pump in more water than to renew the whole infrastructure or large parts of the infrastructure.

This table from a study made by TaKaDu compares water tariffs with non-revenue Water (NRW) values. It shows that many countries with low water tariffs have rather high percentage of NRW. TaKaDu

Driessen: I don‘t agree to that. The value of our infrastructure at Vitens is up to five or six billion euros. So when you are not paying enough attention to the condition of your assets it will get out of control. You will have twenty, thirty, forty, fifty percent of non-revenue water. And then we are talking serious amount of revenue. But I don‘t think it is a matter of revenue. I think it is a matter of availability.

In London, everyone thinks it would be always raining. But the amount of rainfall there is lower then in Rome! They are facing serious water scarcity in London and together with an increasing water demand they have to act. They have about thirty to forty percent of water leakages, of non-revenue water over there. And at the same time there is an increasing demand and an decreasing supply of water. So, it is not a water tariffs discussion at all. It is just about water availability. It‘s a quantity discussion. When you say, well there is no money in water anyway so let it happen than it will be fifty, sixty, seventy percent of non-revenue water in some years. Maybe their deduction is a correlation you would expect but I don‘t think it‘s one that actually happens.

SCC: But the pipes and water infrastructure got older and older over the years. So why wasn‘t there something happening?
Driessen: I think, in the past there was simply not enough information about lifetime and about condition of all the assets. Actually, everybody was waiting till the problems started. Like in London. The problems over there have started and we in the netherlands are in the lucky circumstances that we know that our problems will come in ten or twenty years. So we have still time to act now. Now everyone in Europe is aware of this phenomena that pipes and underground infrastructure is getting older and might have to be replaced all in one time or in a certain time frame. We now all know that because in some countries it is happening. I think that is the most simple explanation why we are where we are now.

SCC: How much water loss is part of a sustainable loss in your eyes?
Driessen: Of course as less as possible. But I think it‘s realistic to have it around five percent. I also heard numbers like: „below 15 percent non-revenue water you should not invest in infrastructure“ but when you are speaking about an sustainable approach: I think it should be around five percent.

Erik Driessen is Innovation Manager for „Vitens“, the biggest drinking utility in the Netherlands since August 2012. Before that he was business developer at two water start-ups and consultant for industrial water management at „Royal Haskonig“ (now „Royal HaskonigDHV“). He did an Ing. in chemical engineering in Utrecht.

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Eager to learn more on this topic? Read: “The true price of water

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