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Turning lost water into smart water with IoT

Deon LiebenbergBy DEON LIEBENBERG Vodacom IoT Managing Executive
FROM grainy satellite images of emptying dams to front-page news of heavily guarded water collection points – the Cape Town water crisis certainly thrust the issue of water security into the limelight.

And while the public discourse was filled with opinions and more than a little rage, it became evident that the discussion was being hampered by limited information on water availability, the location of water leaks and of the city’s heaviest water users.

It became clear that water management remains hampered by limited information and rudimentary technologies, which leave municipal managers to make judgements based on limited data, almost like a doctor taking a single blood pressure measurement from a group of people and then trying to treat individual ailments.

From an Internet of Things (IoT) perspective, Vodacom saw this as a socially beneficial way of testing and proving the power of Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) IoT devices – Narrowband IoT’s (NB-IoT) game changing capabilities for water management. These devices are affordable, small and remarkably powerful sensors that can be installed across the water value chain to monitor the exact flow and use of water, the location of leaks and even the quality of the water being pumped.

LPWA water meters may simply sound like an expensive replacement for the mechanical flow meter that you find near your front gate, but combined with Vodacom’s national cellular network it becomes a very powerful water and business management tool. A tool capable of utilising this NB-IoT technology to connect devices with low bandwidth requirements using low power, whilst providing increased penetration.

These smart water meters vary from devices that simply measure the flow of water through a pipe to more complex devices that can test the quality of the water. As they are connected to the Vodacom network through LPWA technology, they can be fitted in hard-to-reach places or even underground and still communicate in real time with a central database.

Back at head office, the devices, which can number in the millions, can paint an accurate picture of the flow of water at dams and water purification stations, water levels in reservoirs, and ultimately to every home.

The information can then be collated and analysed by our Big Data team, who can evaluate metrics such as sudden changes in usage or flow to detect leaks or burst pipes. They can individually change water prices to deter heavy users and they can even monitor water quality to allow the municipality to pump grey or lower quality water to certain areas, such as factories.

On an even higher level, the IoT data can be overlaid on weather patterns and global climate change statistics to help municipalities and national government plan for future water security.

In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, similar studies have progressed to a point where leaks can be identified and corrected before the sun sets and municipalities can even manage the pipe pressure during low-use periods to further save costs. Interestingly, the cost of pumping water can represent as much as 65% of a municipality’s total water cost.

In these global studies, water consumption has declined by 10% (thanks to the quick fix of leaks), leaks have declined by 20% overall and interestingly the average consumer’s bill has dropped by around R180 a month.

Vodacom is following these global best practices by offering its IoT and LPWA technology and infrastructure as a platform for municipalities and other organisations that offer a service to consumers.

This has opened the floodgates of ideas, including ways people can personally manage their water usage and municipal bill through an app that tracks real-time water usage data. The same app can allow citizens to spot and report water leaks.

Another idea that followed the first IoT experiments is that Vodacom could warn users entering a water scarce area by tracking the location of their mobile phones and warning them via an SMS to conserve water.

Ultimately, the use of low-cost IoT and LPWA technology can radically transform the way we track and manage our most precious resource. In time, this will allow us to not only refer to our cities as Smart Cities, but also to our water as Smart Water!
DEON LIEBENBERG Vodacom IoT Managing Executive
– Technoafrica

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