Smart water networks to battle leaks and droughts in the UK

31 / 01 / 24 - 6 minute read

Picture the scene. Your garden is wilting because of a hosepipe ban introduced as a drought takes hold. Meanwhile, a broken water main at the end of the street is gushing, forcing the local primary school to close for a day before it was fixed.

This surprisingly familiar scene for many of the UK’s residents captures the country’s main water issues: under-investment in ageing infrastructure and the impact of record-breaking temperatures and low rainfall due to climate chaos – a scenario replicated in many countries across the world. Often the two come together. Prolonged drought can cause the subsurface soils to shift, leading to yet more water main breaks.

The issue is that the UK is far from being the rainy island many imagine. While the UK’s annual rainfall is about 1,100mm, significant parts are staring down a future of empty water barrels.

Phoebe Smith, PATRIZIA Infrastructure Senior Director

Drizzly Scotland, Wales and northern England bolster the annual rainfall figure. In the south-east, the average is less than 700 mm, less than most state capitals in ‘dry’ Australia. South East England is also the UK’s most populated area, with 9 million inhabitants packed into 19,000 sq km.

The combination of climate chaos and population growth means the region is drying out fast. Some 28% of the UK’s groundwater aquifers – the layers of porous sand and rock that hold water underground – and up to 18% of rivers and reservoirs have more water taken out than is put back in. This is unsustainable. Without significant action, the National Audit Office (NAO) forecasts that the total water demand will start exceeding supply by 2034.

Many will grumble about water shortages this year, unable to do anything about it, but Phoebe Smith is in a position to offer a solution to part of the problem. As a Senior Director at PATRIZIA Infrastructure, she sits on the board of Connexin – a smart cities company in which PATRIZIA Infrastructure committed £80 million in 2020.

Initially, Phoebe (as a key team member for the investment) was attracted by Connexin’s fibre plans. However, she quickly appreciated the company’s IoT (internet of things) solutions, in particular for smart water networks.

“A lot of companies boast that they are creating smart cities, but, when you drill down, they are not,” comments Phoebe. “Connexin is offering end-to-end Smart City solutions, and they were already rolling out solutions that are transforming utility efficiency for the City of Hull, Uisce Éireann and Amey – a PFI [Private Finance Initiative] contractor to the Sheffield City Council.”

Plugging the leaks

“Water companies in England and Wales lost more than a trillion litres of water in 2021 via leaky pipes,” says Ralph Varcoe, Chief Growth Officer at Connexin. “That’s an average of 3 billion litres a day.”

That amount would make almost 12,000 billion cups of tea, or 44,716 cups for every resident in the UK.  Every day.

Ralph explains that England’s crumbling pipe network is one cause of leaks, which exacerbate droughts and lead to hosepipe bans. UK water companies are responsible for 416,175 km of water pipes, 809,635 km if you include sewers. They are replacing, on average, 0.05% of their pipe networks a year, which means it would take 2,000 years to replace all pipes at current rates.

Modern PVC pipes last between 50 and 100 years, depending on ground conditions, but all pipe networks that rely on joints and fittings are prone to leakage at some point. “Obviously, the network has a significant leakage problem,” comments Ralph. “If undetected, leaks may lose vast amounts of water for many months and years.”

Water companies have committed to a 50% reduction in leakage from 2017-2018 levels by 2050. In addition, they need to contribute to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s (Defra) proposed water demand target under the Environment Act 2021 to reduce public water use per person in England by 20% by 2037. This includes a 31.3% reduction in leakage by 2037.

To detect and fix leaks quickly, water companies are adopting technology such as noise loggers, which listen out for leaks, satellite technology, thermal imaging drones, sniffer dogs and – increasingly – smart metres.

Ralph Varcoe, Connexin Chief Growth Officer

Smart water networks

The water industry has been switching to automatic meter reading (AMR) sensors, which allow meters to be automatically read if a device comes within proximity. However, companies would like more frequent readings of devices so they can bill customers more accurately and regularly.

For this reason, companies are now looking at advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) – systems that enable real-time measurement and visualisation of time-specific data captured by an always-connected network. Already widely used in the gas and electricity industry, AMI can help companies and households reduce overhead costs and more precisely track resource consumption.

AMI can be effective because it constantly captures and sends data to the utility describing where consumption is occurring.

“At Connexin, we have an ambition to become the UK’s leading LoRaWAN provider. We see a terrific opportunity in a market that is quite fragmented and is so in need of critical infrastructure to support innovation.”

Ralph Varcoe, Connexin Chief Growth Officer

“From there, anomalies can quickly be identified, such as a surge in water usage from an address,” explains Ralph. “A team can then be proactively sent to investigate and fix leaks, which saves substantial amounts of water. It is all about effective resource management.”

Connexin has a smart sensor solution based on LoRaWAN (long-range wide area network), which allows battery-operated devices to wirelessly connect and send data over the network. The devices connect via a gateway and provide near real-time data to assist with invoicing, analysis and decision-making.

“There are several competing technologies out there, such as NB-IoT,” says Ralph. “However, we tested them extensively in 2020 and the evidence was conclusive for a sensor network solution using LoRaWAN. It is the most robust, practical and cost efficient solution for the needs of the water industry.”

Connexin’s smart sensor solutions installed at customers’ homes have a lifespan of 10-15 years before they need to be replaced. The first significant rollout of the technology was announced last year when Severn Trent Water awarded a £7.5 million project to Connexin and its partner, Itron, to install 150,000 smart water sensors across its Coventry and Warwickshire networks.

Earlier this year, Yorkshire Water announced that Connexin and Itron would be installing 30,000 LoRaWAN water meters across the Yorkshire region as part of a first phase of a long-term project. Following this,  larger rollout phase will launch in subsequent years. The partnership will last for up to 20 years, with up to five years for the provision of meters and 15 years for the provision of data collection by the meters.

“The Severn Trent project, in particular, has opened the floodgates,” says Ralph. “Other water companies are following and are keen to make a switch. At Connexin, we have an ambition to become the UK’s leading LoRaWAN provider. We see a terrific opportunity in a market that is quite fragmented and is so in need of critical infrastructure to support innovation.”

Climate disaster is impacting the water cycle

Millions of people are now exposed to acute food and water insecurity.

  • 4 billion – the number of people experiencing severe water shortage for at least one month every year
  • 2 billion – live in countries where water supply is inadequate
  • 50% –  of the world’s population could be in living in areas facings water scarcity by 2025
  • 700 million – could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030
  • 25% – of children (1 in 4) will be living in areas of extremely high water stress by 2040

Yet water waste is rife with the global volume of non-revenue water (NRW), i.e. wasted water, estimated to be 346 million m3 per day, equivalent to a cost of $39 billion per year.

Digital infrastructure for water supply

Worldwide, there is increasing recognition for improved water metering infrastructure to reduce heavy water losses. The installed base of such solutions is forecast to almost quadruple from 170,000 million installed units by 2030, according to data compiled by research firm, Transforma Insights.

From an investment perspective, smart meters possess traits with core infrastructure. They provide an essential service, deliver long-term contracted cashflows, and are supported by a regulatory environment that ensures stable operating conditions.

“As in the UK, water demand is increasing worldwide on the back of urbanisation and population growth which is diminishing the availability of water resources,” Phoebe says. “Mitigation will require significant infrastructure investment.”

Phoebe is keen to see Connexin succeed from a business perspective, and she is aware that much larger stakes are involved. She emphasises the importance of water and a healthy environment. “All our lives, livelihoods and nature depend on water,” Phoebe says. “Stopping such water wastage is crucial to ensuring our water supplies are resilient and secure and this means curbing leaks to prevent future water shortages.”