Editor's note:We've had it with words like “sustainable.” Marketers neutralize their impact by applying concepts to products and services that don't qualify.

Unless referring to the beverage marketed by actress Jennifer Aniston, “smart water” is similarly meaningless. But having identified a rich sales opportunity in the energy-intensive water and wastewater markets, companies use the term to demonstrate their solution transfers seamlessly from one market (electricity) to another (water).

We're not convinced it's that easy.

In our opinion, a “smart grid” monitors what's happening with the assets that comprise the grid and allows managers to move resources from one asset to another as needed. Electricity is lighter and thus more transferable than water, making the second half of our definition much more difficult for people who move water from place to place. But having deployed SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and other telemetric solutions to maximize pipe and pump and tank and well operations, we think many of you are already there in spirit.

Some solutions focus instead on consumption and billing: using wireless communications to improve the accuracy and/or frequency of meter readings. But although vendors can develop a solution around whatever technology an operation already has, achieving meaningful functionality often requires additional equipment as well as employees (or consultants) with expertise in analyzing and integrating communications systems and equipment.

That's difficult to do within a single jurisdiction, much less across boundaries. We've seen individual communities network streetlighting (see “Control Freaks” on page 40 of December 2008). We're watching state, county, and suburban managers move step-by-step toward regionalizing traffic control (see “Project fail-safe” on page 34 of this year's April issue). But nationwide, like we're trying to do with electricity?

What is “smart” water, anyway? Can the water industry simply copy the solutions being used to deploy smart electric grids? What does applying electrical terms — “outages” versus “service disruption” — to water say about a marketer's understanding of your unique challenges?

We explored the issue for those of you being urged to use the latest technology to manage this finite resource.

Last month, executives from Schneider Electric, Mueller Water Products Inc., Telvent, and other companies convened in Paris for the inaugural meeting of the Smart Water Networks Forum. Their goal is to help you use the vast amount of data your operation generates to lower energy use, extend asset life, and enhance reliability.

Though not yet a member, IBM's a likely candidate. Having targeted water as one of 10 industries that can benefit from its advanced analytics, technology services, and business consulting capabilities, the company's first portfolio of Strategic Water Management Solutions includes real-time metering. Their pilot project conducted with the water and information technology (IT) departments of Dubuque, Iowa, that proves customers will use less water if they can access consumption data online just earned an EPA State Revolving Loan Fund Award for Sustainable Public Health Protection.

Some of these companies are industry stalwarts, others are relative newcomers. Either way, a technology-based sales pitch faces some real challenges. Water and wastewater managers understand the potential benefits of operating in a data-driven environment, but sometimes lack the means. In a survey of 300 water utilities released last year by business systems solutions provider Oracle, for example, two-thirds of respondents agree they should deploy technology like “smart metering” but only one-third are doing so. Less than 10% have fully implemented smart metering. The reasons? Lack of cost recovery or measurable return on investment (46%) and upfront expenses (42%).

Of course, measuring consumption is just one aspect of a truly smart grid. There are other differences between the water and energy sectors, as well.

As a nation, we're more committed to smart energy than smart water. It's easier to move power — an intangible, manufactured resource — from place to place than build canals or lay pipelines to move water up and downhill over great stretches of land.

Just as the Interstate Highway System addressed perceived national defense needs, 2007's Energy Independence and Security Act seeks to lower vulnerability by enabling electric utilities to monitor and move loads as necessary and continue providing service even if part of the system is disabled. The law provides the administrative, financial, and research framework (including matching federal funds through 2012) for achieving this goal.

No similar effort exists for water.

The Twenty-First Century Water Commission Act, designed to ensure adequate supply nationwide, has been introduced — and died — five times since 2001.

The National Water Research and Development Initiative Act of 2009 would've included water in the Energy Independence and Security Act. Designed to eliminate drought in the Southeast, it also would have required EPA to do a number of things: find out if energy audits work as well for treatment processes as they do for buildings, conduct a National Water Census, and conduct a wastewater and stormwater reuse and recycling technology demonstration program. The proposal died when the 111th Congress adjourned and, according to American Water Works Association Legislative Director Tommy Holmes, members are loathe to create what many consider another federal bureaucracy for research and development already being done by academia.

There is a plan for a national smart water grid. Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the 2009 proposal alleviates drought in the West using floodwater from the Midwest. We were unable to determine by press time what happened to it, however.

Ironically, the process of generating electricity consumes much of our water. Thermoelectric power generation accounts for 41% of freshwater withdrawals (mostly from surface sources), which are used for once-through cooling at power plants. Meanwhile, even though the percentage of Americans who rely on public drinking water utilities rose from 62% in 1950 to almost 90% today, they account for 13% of freshwater withdrawals.

At any rate, realizing the dream is challenging electric utility managers.

In another 2010 Oracle survey, only one in five is moving forward with systemwide smart grid deployment. Almost half (49%) serving more than 100,000 customers and 18% of those with fewer than 100,000 customers are working on trial programs. Right now, they're more concerned with providing reliable service (45%) and implementing smart metering (41%). They dread (43%) the prospect of having to raise rates to fund such measures.

Smart electricity requires less equipment than the hydraulic equivalent. Smart electric meters — i.e., those that capture and transmit information wirelessly to and from utility operators who control the unit remotely – are more prevalent than in the water industry. Smart water usually requires that a separate device — a radio transmitter called a meter interface unit, or MIU — be installed outside a building to pick up and transmit meter readings. Yet another device must be installed at the pipe's shut-off valve to turn water on or off remotely.

While such capabilities are convenient, they're not necessarily desirable. Would you be comfortable shutting off or restarting service without having a technician onsite?

Chasing the tiny amounts of non-revenue water smart metering programs are after may not be worth the investment. Distribution Infrastructure Lead David Hughes decided the amount of revenue recovered wouldn't pay private provider American Water's investment in equipment and installation. “And it's one more device you're putting in the pipeline that could break down,” he says.

Required elements are sometimes out of public works' control. If you've tried to augment GIS with asset-management software you know it can take years to achieve basic — much less proactive — functionality. Building the IT infrastructure that enables smart water is a whole other degree of difficulty.

The systems generate huge volumes of data that has to be secured so it can be moved from place to place without being compromised, delivered into a repository where it can be manipulated for analysis, and integrated with billing and other administrative programs. Customers have to be educated about what's happening and why. Employees must be hired or retrained.

New York City is closest to smart water, in large part because Mayor Michael Bloomberg is committed to making New York the nation's leading digital city. The city's award-winning Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications developed a wireless network the Department of Environmental Protection is using to deploy a two-pronged effort to maximize water billing and supplies.

The first, costing $252 million, targets metering. By January, 835,000 new Elster AMCO Water C700 displacement, evoQ4 electronic, or Metron-Farnier Spectrum single-jet meters and Aclara STAR radio transmitters will be installed citywide. Data is collected every six hours and transmitted to the department via the wireless network. The replacement project eliminates $3.6 million annually in payments to Con Edison for meter reading, raising collections over the next five years from 88% to 95%, lowering the percentage of estimated bills from 30% to 10%, and reducing customer service headcount from 533 to 480. Estimated annual per-household cost: $4.

The second, costing $5.2 million, targets supply. The Operations Support Tool combines quality and quantity modeling with source monitoring to manage water that travels from three watersheds 125 miles away to 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes into the homes of 9 million people who use 1 billion gallons a day. The program integrates variables like weather forecasts and how much water is flowing into reservoirs from rivers and snowpack so operators can more accurately predict reservoir levels. Though not scheduled to be completed until 2013, managers used it to decide to use a channel to release high-quality water into a stream.

In Massachusetts, a 41-square-acre resort area is working with IBM to optimize water and wastewater resources. In this case, however, the Cape Cod Commission's five-year strategic plan had already allocated $23 million to developing a wireless backbone and Strategic Information Office to standardize collection, management, and use of data regionwide.

Dubuque, Iowa, is using a $7.7 million state revolving loan and $1 million stimulus grant to replace almost 23,000 residential meters (see photos throughout article) with an advanced metering system — a project it was already planning anyway.

But without IBM's analytics expertise — the value of which of Smarter Water Program Director Michael Sullivan couldn't estimate because this is a pilot program — it's doubtful a city of 60,000 could undertake the type of research explained on page 46. The company opened a Technology Services Delivery Center downtown and used its proprietary cloud-computing program to analyze consumption data in an experiment involving 300 volunteers. As part of Dubuque's commitment to achieving sustainability holistically, similar projects for electricity and natural gas are under way.


Customers can handle data-driven management, but can utilities?

In an experiment that allowed homeowners to see in near real time the impact of behavioral changes, water consumption fell by 6.6% and leak detection improved eightfold.

The project involved 300 homeowners in Dubuque, Iowa, and IBM's cloud-based computing model that crunches meter readings into easy-to-understand dollar, gallon, and carbon-reduction graphics accessible via a password-protected Web site. The partners are conducting similar studies of natural gas and electricity use, and developing studies related to travel and health.

“Eventually these separate data streams will provide an integrated sustainability picture, allowing the data to inform ‘across' the normal silos of information,” says Smarter Sustainable Dubuque Project Manager Dave Lyons.

For the water pilot project, the city used a geographic information system to select participants who'd represent the full range of customers; i.e., those from old and new homes, households with few people as well as with numerous inhabitants, etc.

All participants received two years of their consumption data based on monthly meter readings. Half were encouraged to, say, take shorter showers and physically read their water meter to see how such changes affect consumption. The other half accessed the graphically enhanced Web site, which showed them how to compete not only against themselves but also against other volunteers alone and in teams.

Less than 1% of the first group reported leaks compared to 8% of the second group, who saved 89,090 gallons over nine weeks. If extrapolated to a full year over the entire city, 64,944,218 gallons of water worth $190,936 would be saved.

Of the participants who accessed the Web site:

  • 77% said it helped them better understand their water use
  • 70% felt it helped them assess the impacts of the changes they've made
  • 48% said it helped them conserve e water
  • 61% changed their behavior by, for or example, taking shorter showers, fixing leaks, buying water-efficient t appliances, and watering their lawn differently
  • 48% plan to make such changes.