Mitigating Losses: Automation of water infrastructure key to reducing faults and inaccuracies

Automation of water infrastructure key to reducing faults and inaccuracies

One of the key indicators of efficient water management is accurate measurement of consumption. However, urban local bodies (ULBs) are currently facing issues such as pipeline damage from corrosion or third-party activities, worn-out pressuring valves, tampered or damaged meters, and shortage of staff to address complaints resulting in a mismatch between the supply and consumption of water. This leads to high non-revenue water (NRW) levels, which currently hover around 50 per cent. Further, there are issues of illegal connections and meter reading inaccuracies owing to poor asset management practices, resulting in losses.

Some of the ULBs have acknowledged these issues and adopted smart IT-based solutions to improve the efficiency, longevity and reliability of water network infrastructure. The adoption of advanced  metering  and  bill  collection methods,  detailed  mapping  of  assets  and underground pipes, and deployment of leakage control technologies and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are some of the key steps taken to contain the losses resulting from increasing NRW levels. Through these devices, remote data is collected on a real-time basis to generate actionable insights, thereby efficiently fixing loopholes.

Key technology solutions for water management

Primarily, water network management involves the adoption of four strategies, which can help ULBs overcome challenges related to water losses and damaged pipelines. These are pressure management in pipelines, leakage management, centralised command and control of the entire water network, and adoption of smart metering and billing infrastructure. Smart IT-based devices and equipment will play a vital role in this regard, improving process efficiency through automation. Some of the key technology devices available in the market are:

Motorised actuators: One of the smart ways to manage the water pressure is by deploying motorised actuators, in which pressure valves open and close automatically. Manually operated valves require someone in attendance to adjust them while motorised actuators use either hydraulic pressure or electricity to adjust a valve remotely. Hydraulic actuators keep the system from being overpressurised by maintaining the water pressure as per the need. At the same time, it ensures adequate flow. The advanced electronic actuators are connected to an electronic controller, which is preloaded with a flow/pressure profile. Utilities can manage the water pressure by installing these actuators. These actuators are equipped with GPRS connectivity, which helps in the integration of the SCADA system to transmit the pressure data directly to the central servers on a daily or hourly basis.

Leakage detection techniques: Controlling leakages is critical to reducing NRW levels of water utilities. To this end, advanced equipment and tools such as sensors, ultrasonic flow meters and bulk meters need to be installed throughout the distribution network to detect leakages at all points of the distribution chain. To detect leakages in transmission mains, insertion meters or clamp-on ultrasonic meters positioned at each end of the mains will calculate changes in the volumetric flow rate.

Apart from this, advanced inline leakage detection technology called SmartBall is being used by utilities to detect very small leak points. Under this technology, a ball-shaped, free-swimming device equipped with a sensitive acoustic sensor is used to detect tiny leak points with leakages as low as 0.028 gallons per minute. It can identify these leakage points up to 6 feet of their actual location. To conduct inspections, SmartBall is inserted into a pipeline, which is at least 350 mm in diameter. It can travel with the water flow in the pipeline for 16-18 hours per deployment. Therefore, a long survey in a single deployment can be completed without causing any disruption to regular pipeline services. The tool can be tracked throughout the inspection process by installing GPS or sensor meters at predetermined locations in the pipeline. This helps in getting real-time data about the location of the SmartBall and the portions of the pipeline that are affected by leakages and gas pockets. In India, SmartBall leak detection technology has been adopted by the Kerala Water Authority.

In-line tethered acoustic leak and air pocket inspection technology is another advanced technique that helps detect leakages in pipelines.  Under this technique, a CCTV camera is fitted onto a drag chute, which is the insertion device. The device is also equipped with sensors to identify leakages and transmit data to a video processing unit captured through the CCTV. The key advantage of the technology is that it can be used to inspect all kinds of pipelines with a diameter of 2-4 inches.

Apart from this, pipeline driver technology can be effectively deployed for the inspection of pipelines to determine the baseline condition. This technology is ideal for large diameter pipelines that cannot be removed from service due to operational constraints. Besides, live detection technology is one of the most accurate tools available for the detection of leakages, gas pockets and structural defects in complex networks of large diameter water mains.

SCADA: For the command and control of the entire water supply system, a web-based SCADA system integrated with a geographic information system and a central control centre is essential for centralised data management. It allows utilities to remotely monitor the water supply system, ensure accurate data collection and undertake efficient management of historical data through internet technology. Utilities can remotely assess key performance indicators such as the flow and pressure in the pipeline, as well as the performance of water distribution pumps. The integrated management information module creates a user-friendly online interface for consumers for a two-way communication. It helps in building customer confidence through an efficient complaint redressal mechanism and reduces response time for leakage repairs. With access to all performance parameters, the cost of operations can be reduced by taking timely preventive measures. More so, proper automated operations smoothen mechanical and electrical shocks, thus lengthening the life of equipment and reducing the maintenance cost.

Metering and billing: A robust metering and billing infrastructure is crucial for strengthening the water distribution segment. Automatic meter reading, electromagnetic meters, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and long-range water meter sensors are next-generation, high performance devices that help utilities accurately record water consumption data. AMI is an integrated system of smart meters, communication networks and data management systems that enables two-way communication between ULBs and consumers. It captures and communicates the network status and consumption data remotely on a real-time basis. The consumption data is transferred from the electric meter to the utility (one-way communication) via GPRS or radio wave for billing, troubleshooting and analysis.


Greater automation and adoption of smart technologies is essential for water utilities to reduce  NRW levels. This will reduce physical losses, customer meter inaccuracies and illegal connections. Apart from this, the accurate billing of water will boost the revenue generation capacity of utilities while reducing wastage of resources. Going forward, more innovative technologies that are economical and offer customised solutions to ULBs are needed to improve service delivery and ensure better management of a large water supply network.