Setting an Example: Thames Water sharpens its digital focus to deliver better services

Thames Water sharpens its digital focus to deliver better services

Thames Water is the largest water and wastewater services company in the UK. The private utility’s service area stretches from the eastern fringes of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in the west, through London and the Thames Valley, to the western edges of Essex and Kent in the east. It is responsible for the supply of 2.6 billion litres of tap water daily to around 10 million customers. It also treats more than 4 billion litres of sewage per day for 15 million customers. It caters to 27 per cent of the country’s population and also manages some of the significant water infrastructure projects in the country, including the £5 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel. Apart from this, Thames Water operates 97 water treatment facilities, 26 raw water reservoirs and 308 pumping stations. It also manages 351 sewage treatment facilities, 100,000 km of sewers and 4,780 sewage pumping stations.

In the past few years, the utility has made a step change in its digital approach to create a smarter network. It is focusing on several technology initiatives to increase customer satisfaction and improve the overall efficiency of services. These measures have allowed Thames Water to take faster and better decisions. As a result, it has become more proactive than reactive. The utility also accords high priority to sustainable business operations. It generates 22 per cent of its own electricity and sources the remaining electricity from external renewable generation sources. It also recycles treated sewage biosolids, which are used as fertilisers for crops. The utility aims to achieve net zero-carbon emissions by 2030.

Water and sewage management initiatives

Thames Water runs a large and complex network of water and wastewater mains spanning 139,000 km. It regularly undertakes extensive mains replacement and rehabilitation works to improve the health of its existing assets. The utility has adopted several other innovative methods to significantly reduce pipeline bursts and associated cost implications. It has implemented the “Calm System Operations” initiative to reduce the stress caused by increased water distribution during hot weather, pumping water against gravity and rapid changes in the direction of flow through a pipe. Under the initiative, the utility has made various changes including optimisation of pump operation and valve monitors, improvement in training practices, and use of new technologies to detect and reduce system shock. Further, it is focusing on the digitalisation of its network with the deployment of acoustic loggers and smart meters.

Besides, Thames Water has reduced leakages in its network by 27 per cent in the past 15 years. Several measures have been taken to lower the leakage levels, including the implementation of better prevention and detection methods, increased deployment of the leakage repair crew, and improvement in measurement techniques. During 2018-19, the utility invested £376 million in leakage prevention and network maintenance activities. It aims to reduce the leakage to 606 million litres per day (mld) by 2020 and to 509 mld by 2025.

In 2018-19, Thames Water also successfully completed a £267 million project to upgrade the Deephams sewage treatment facility located in North London. The upgradation works have helped the utility in improving the final effluent quality discharged into the river Lee while managing the rising population and reducing odour emissions. Further, there has been an increase in the renewable energy generation from the site. The deployment of innovative technologies such as building information modelling and drones played a key role in the success of the project.

The utility also undertook the rehabilitation of the Kings Scholar Pond sewer during the year. The £20 million project used advanced keyhole engineering techniques and was completed with minimal disruption to the public and no impact on roads or underground rail. The sewer also remained in full wastewater operation through upgradation works. The project has helped in increasing the lifespan of the sewer by 120 years.

Leveraging digital technologies

In the past few years, Thames Water has increasingly deployed new and innovative technologies for enhancing cost and operational efficiencies and delivering a superior customer experience. It has deployed over 27,000 acoustic loggers, which help pinpoint leaks in the utility’s water infrastructure. Further, it has also installed around 1,000 sewage depth monitors to detect blockages, and reduce internal sewer flooding and pollution incidents. The water utility aims to deploy a total of 200,000 such monitors by 2025.

It has also rolled out an initiative to deploy smart meters across its service area to monitor water usage in real time and minimise water losses through early detection. The meters also strengthen water conservation by enabling customers to better understand their consumption. So far, more than 327,000 smart meters have been installed. The utility aims to install 700,000 meters by 2025 to put people in control of their water use. Moreover, the utility is implementing a digital transformation project entailing an investment of around £1 billion to reform its processes and increase overall efficiency by 20 per cent in the next five years. A new command centre will be developed under the project to increase the monitoring of trunk mains by 25 per cent. The centre will also take live reading from up to 200,000 sewer depth monitoring points. The real-time data will provide total network visibility to the utility’s employees through a smartphone app and enable them to anticipate issues and take faster remedial action.

Focus on customer satisfaction

Several measures have been taken by Thames Water to improve its customer experience. The utility has launched a new customer relationship management (CRM) and billing platform to deliver better services to its customers. So far, more than 235,000 customers have been migrated to the new platform. Thames Water is working to successfully transition the rest of the customers on to the new platform. The platform will replace the old and inflexible legacy system and help the utility improve its billing and collection efficiency.

The solution also provides the utility’s front line customer service advisers with a greater ability to assist customers through improved data, insights and processes. This enables them to resolve more queries on first contact, and thus improve customer satisfaction and reduce complaints. The technology support for the new platform was provided by Wipro Limited. The company’s SafeWater Rapid Deployment Solution, which is pre-built with industry-specific business processes, enabled a smooth transition to a new SAP-based CRM and billing solution from the legacy system. Thames Water is also developing a new website to improve customer experience, and enable them to better self-serve.

The way forward

In recent years, Thames Water has emerged as a leader in the adoption of new technologies to transform its operations. Going forward, the utility aims to continue investing in smart water technologies to improve service delivery and achieve higher levels of efficiency amidst rising challenges such as a growing population, ageing infrastructure, changing customer expectations and climate change. Under its water resources management plan for the period 2020-25, the utility is committed to reducing its leakage by 15 per cent (as compared to its 2019-20 target), pollution incidents by 30 per cent and customer complaints by 50 per cent.

Thames Water is also giving importance to collaboration with peers and stakeholders to achieve its long-term targets. It is working with several companies across South East England to develop a multisector resilience plan for the region and evaluate options such as water transfer from the river Severn, a new reservoir in Oxfordshire and water reuse in London.