Digitally Ahead: Sydney Water uses technology to provide reliable and quality services

Sydney Water uses technology to provide reliable and quality services

Sydney Water, Australia’s largest water utility, provides water, wastewater, recycled and storm water services to over 5 million people. It serves an area of over 12,000 square km, covering the Greater Sydney, Blue Mountains and Illawarra regions. The utility is a statutory corporation wholly owned by the Government of New South Wales.

It supplies around 566 billion litres of treated drinking water to households as well as commercial and industrial areas through a network comprising over 22,342 km of water mains, 249 reservoirs and 150 pumping stations. The utility also owns and operates 16 wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), a network of 26,169 km of wastewater mains and 689 wastewater pumping stations. It has a strong track record of providing reliable and high quality water and wastewater services. However, in recent years it has taken additional measures to improve and extend the life cycle of its assets, make its operations more customer-centric and increase the overall organisational efficiency by using various intelligent technologies.

Water management initiatives

Sydney Water manages a large and complex network of over 22,000 km of water mains. An estimated 10 per cent of water is lost daily from the water mains. The utility has adopted various approaches to detect leakages in its network, including monitoring of rainfall and soil moisture levels, pipe inspections and installation of acoustic listening devices. The acoustic devices pick up the noise water makes as it leaks from pipes. This helps in quickly identifying and repairing hidden leakages. In areas that have high water pressure, the utility has installed pressure reducing valves to reduce the stress on pipes and lower the number of leaks and breaks in pipes. In 2018-19, the utility spent around $30 million on reducing leakages in its network. As a result, its active leak detection increased by 66 per cent. Further, it is working to implement innovative solutions such as sensors, robotics and smart lining in pipes to reduce the cost of pipe replacement and minimise the disruption in supply.

In 2018, Sydney Water adopted a leading Dutch technology, Nereda, for its WWTPs. The technology, unlike conventional processes, is an energy efficient water treatment process that can extract nutrients and other chemicals from wastewater with a significantly lower carbon footprint. Nereda technology has been deployed at Sydney Water’s WWTP in Quakers Hill on a pilot basis. It has not only helped the utility in reducing its carbon emissions but has also saved $14 million in capital costs. Nereda is an award-winning biological wastewater system that purifies wastewater using aerobic granular biomass, generating energy and cost savings. The treated water is used in industrial processes, in agriculture for irrigation, in urban parks and landscapes and in households for flushing in toilets, washing cars, etc. The technology will also be installed at the utility’s water recycling plant at St Mary’s.

Sydney Water is also conducting a year-long digital meter trial in the Liverpool area. The utility will install around 8,500 meters, including some in remote areas, where a meter will send a signal through a transmitter using low power wide area network radio technology. The deployment of digital meters is expected to help the utility in improving, optimising and simplifying water distribution. It will be able to track in near real time where the water is going and where it is lost. This will enable informed decision-making around investment in water infrastructure to meet future demand, and minimise water loss through early leak detection.

Focus on customer experience

Sydney Water has taken a plethora of measures to improve customer experience and drive business efficiency. In June 2019, the utility replaced its 30-year-old billing platform with the SAP S/4HANA platform, which offers new and enhanced capabilities for its customers. It is also utilising various new technologies to improve communication with its customers via apps, SMS and email. It has launched Tap In, a mobile app that enables customers to get building plans approved, and submit connection or disconnection applications online, eliminating the need to visit an agent in person. It has also introduced the Water Map app, which allows customers to get real-time updates of water supply.

In October 2018, it expanded Customer Hub, a key initiative taken to transform the utility into a customer-centric organisation, to cover all the areas of operation. The Customer Hub was launched in 2017 to improve the experience of anyone affected by water service interruption. It commenced as a pilot covering the city’s western population of around 1 million people. The Hub now covers the entire customer base of over 5 million people. The major customer outcomes delivered by the process changes include minimised customer impact associated with water outages, proactive SMSs and email communication of water main repairs, real-time measurement of customer experience and real-time service recovery.

A significant technology initiative by the Customer Hub was the development of a geospatial awareness tool. The tool, known as Spatial Hub, allows the Sydney Water team to visualise customer issues in real time and minimise the impact of any maintenance work. It also incorporates new dashboards to provide a visual summary of daily operations and maintenance along with tools for work order creation and analysis, heat mapping, and standard Google map functions. Further, a customer notification system is used to provide advance notice of water interruptions or information updates relating to a burst water main. It is also used to keep customers informed of progress on reported faults.

Adopting new technologies

Sydney Water through its research and development capability continually leverages new technologies for enhancing overall efficiency and delivering superior customer services. The utility has adopted several advanced technologies such as IoT and data analytics to improve the monitoring and management of its water and wastewater networks. It has also collaborated with various universities, research agencies and other utilities to develop innovative methods and tools for solving water industry challenges.

The utility has installed more than 320 IoT sensors on its network in the Liverpool area, enabling real-time monitoring of assets. The system, which has been operational since mid-2018, has helped Sydney Water in detecting sewer blockages and overflows to prevent their impact on customers and environment. The utility along with Data61, the data science arm of Australia’s national science agency, has deployed machine learning techniques to analyse factors that may contribute to sewer chokes. It has also developed a pilot model to predict the likelihood of future sewer chokes, enabling the utility to move towards a more proactive approach.

Further, it has adopted a new method to leverage large data sets across the value chain to improve its decision-making. The water utility has developed a model that uses over 40 different data sets, including demand, cost and asset information, as inputs to derive optimal solutions for long-term investment.

It is also planning to use robotic tools with advanced sensing capabilities to improve the techniques of pipe condition assessment. Different sensors will be connected to the robot to detect key parameters of pipe performance such as wall thickness. The robotic tools will allow Sydney Water to undertake pipe inspections more cost-effectively and safely. The tools will help identify vulnerable sections of water and wastewater pipes for replacement and maintenance.

The way forward

The deployment of digital solutions has enabled Sydney Water to streamline its operations and deliver superior customer experience. The utility has developed cutting-edge tools such as the Customer Hub, which has helped the organisation in understanding customers’ needs and requirements. Other major areas where the utility has implemented advanced technologies include energy self-sufficiency, resource recovery from water, smart asset networks and sensors to optimise operations.

Collaboration with manufacturers, universities, research agencies and the water industry has contributed to the growth of the utility and has helped drive innovation in the water sector. In the future, the utility aims to focus on the development of intelligent online monitoring capabilities to ensure targeted preventive maintenance. Further, the utility will increase its investment in water sources such as recycled water to meet the demands of a growing population.