Smart metering of water use gives real-time information that enables businesses to become more efficient, thus reducing water and energy bills, says Jacob Tompkins.

We are overloaded by information: 24-hour news channels, internet, smart phones, spam – information is clamouring for our attention. But in this mess we sometimes overlook crucial information, such as water usage. It is sound business practice to be ruthlessly efficient in all areas of procurement and production, but strangely, water usage is sometimes treated as a fixed cost, when it is really anything but. Of course, the fact is: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Almost all businesses in the UK have meters but these are generally ‘dumb’ meters – the data is rarely provided in a way that can have any impact on how water is used. Some water companies are installing AMR (automatic meter reading) meters for homes and businesses. These enable water companies to read meters remotely, but don’t offer any functionality to those homes and businesses. Some UK water companies do help business water customers with water-efficiency advice and can install (at a cost) appropriate smart metering technology. But this practice is not widespread.
There are efforts being made to close the gaps between need and availability of technology. Waterwise is part of a European Thematic Network called @qua. Part of the ICT Policy Support Programme (ICT PSP) under the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP) of the European Commission. While the use of acronyms make it sound complicated, the goal is simple: to stimulate the best use of ICT for water management by businesses – in particular small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The programme is part of the Digital Agenda for Europe 2020, which seeks to improve service quality while developing a sustainable management of resources. The network addresses all of the issues of water management – from resources to societal changes – using a wide range of ICT solutions: data acquisition, numerical modelling, real-time monitoring and field operation management. Partners are championing interoperability and the use of common standards.

Financial support

Until there is consensus, the quickest fix is for businesses to look at installing their own smart meter. This might sound expensive but it’s not. The government has an Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme for water-saving technologies, such as water meters, monitoring equipment and management software, which are included in the Water Technology List (WTL). This means that they are given 100% of the capital allowance in the first year on these items.

There are other instruments of support available to those looking to start making smart choices on water usage. Waterwise increasingly receives requests from businesses recognising the need to increase water efficiency, and is able to provide guidance. For on-the-ground help Aqualogic has a track record of helping companies and buildings save on their water and energy bills. In a recent trial project at a National Trust property the installation of sub meters, and implementation of control measures such as data logging resulted in savings of 1735 m3 per annum at a saving of £2,000 per year.

And there are additional benefits to increased evaluation of water usage. In the National Trust example cited above, optimisation of water use meant that the site’s wastewater treatment system, which was being upgraded, only needed a reduced capacity, which led to an approximate £200,000 saving in capital costs. Furthermore, the use of internal (sub) meters meant that the National Trust could determine its exact water use, and cross charge the balance to its local authority tenants on the site accurately, with further significant cost reduction.

There are cheaper alternatives such as the MeterMimic, which can read the magnetic pulses from a dumb meter and send these to your management systems, all you have to do is drop it in the meter pit. If that’s still too expensive you can just read your meter on a weekly basis – old-fashioned ‘smart’ (but labour intensive)!

There is an interesting see-saw, as home metering is not as widespread, but in some areas where it is, there are more efforts to use smarter options. Last year Southern Water launched a programme to install half a million meters by 2015 and all new homes in the area have been fitted with a water meter since 1990. Darren Bentham, director of metering at Southern Water, says: “We believe paying for the water you use is the fairest way, and the majority of our customers agree with us.”

Latest technology

The meters include the latest AMR technology, which means up to 20,000 can be read each day using ‘drive-by’ technology. In addition, they include a leak alarm and the predicted savings from the repair of supply pipes and internal leaks add up to five million litres of water each day. Southern has also worked closely with Ofwat to support customers who may see an increase in their bills on metered charges. For some 100,000 customers that includes a free water and energy audit in their homes, as well as face-to-face financial advice.

The upcoming Water White Paper from Defra will focus on the importance of water efficiency. Likewise, there are a number of European initiatives currently looking at water use in buildings and there is likely to be more stringent standards, and possibly legislation, around non-domestic use of water. At the same time financial institutions are asking businesses questions around water use and management. Most people don’t think this an issue for them, but what would your business do if there was no water supply for the day?

Knowing where your water comes from and how it is used can cut costs, mitigate risk and enhance your environmental performance. It is also worth considering that water companies have no statutory duty to supply business customers so if there’s a big drought you are well down the pecking order. Likewise if you are a public body you have a statutory duty to use water efficiently and if you don’t even know how much you use you may face some difficult questions when you start arguing that you should have a priority supply.
Information is not generally considered a very precious resource, but using it wisely could help promote both sustainability and efficiency. Smart meters help customers understand their patterns of consumption, and help the water companies identify and deal with leaks. Despite initiatives such as @qua, and efforts of leading companies like Southern Water and Aqualogic, momentum on smart metering for businesses has been slow to gather. However, many businesses are beginning to recognize the benefits of increasing efficiency at every stage of their business. Ramping up the installation of smart meters would save money for customers now, and help meet future needs for this very precious resource.

Jacob Tompkins is MD of Waterwise. For further information please visit www.waterwise.org.uk.