What is digital water quality monitoring & what obstacles does it face for large-scale implementation?
The water industry has traditionally been cautious and resistant to wholesale changes. With a focus on public health, reliability and stringent regulations, the industry is set up to be conservative in decision making. Water technologies face the dual problem of slow adaptation from public sector authorities and hesitation for capital investment from the private sector due to the heavily regulated environment.
In fact, water has been the forgotten frontier of the clean tech world with only 5% of the $4.3 billion of VC money in the industry going to water technologies. Even federal agencies are working with Kennedy-era policies regarding water. However, without a continual emphasis on updating technology in the water industry, we risk billions of dollars wasted on excess, water scarcity, industrial waste polluting essential waterways and billions of lives being forced to live without access to basic water needs.
By investing in innovative digital water solutions and implementing a technology-focused strategy, companies can increase efficiency, ensure compliance and help communities by reusing and recycling water to reduce waste. But is technology alone the answer? Unless policy and people’s mindset take a turn for the better to support technology, this adoption curve will always remain an inflated expectation only by the service providers, water experts and champions advocating for change.
What is Digital Water Quality Monitoring?
Drinking water utilities are rightfully conservative. However, even businesses where water is a core element of their business have usually taken a reactive approach to problems. Until a crisis appeared, companies and public authorities had no way of knowing what issues needed to be addressed in their water supply. This even extends to the school where our most important asset, our children are affected and action is taken only after a complaint occurs which could have resulted after months of drinking toxic water. When will enough be enough? How many more Flint, Michigan's, need to occur before action is implemented and not just spoken about?
With digital water quality monitoring, companies now have the power of their own data and analytics to allow them to make proactive decisions regarding their water quality. The Global Infrastructure Initiative emphasizes that digital water management systems reduce water loss and improve efficiency by increasing transparency, allowing for faster response times to water failures and leaks, and letting companies practice predictive maintenance. We lose trillions of gallons of treated water in the U.S. alone annually when there are nations where a glass of safe drinking water is still a luxury. How can we hope for equitable distribution if water is not a priority and a topic forefront in all discussions related to infrastructure?
With $10.8 billion expected to be spent on digital solutions for the water industry in North America by 2030, the demand for data in this sector is evident. By collecting real-time data for water (and wastewater) networks remotely, companies can save immensely on in person data collection processes such as inspections and in-ground manual water sensors. They can then use this data to make decisions to improve their operational processes or monitor their water quality to ensure proper regulatory requirements are being met. This continuous inflow of data also allows them to prepare better for emergencies and ensure their maintenance requirements are being met.
What are the Challenges with Digitizing Water Monitoring?
According to a report on digital transformation in the U.S. water utilities sector by Dodge Data & Analytics, 90% of respondents said their data lies in disconnected systems such as spreadsheets, paper records, etc. This prevents them from fully utilizing the potential of their data even though they are already collecting valuable insights about their water usage and quality. In addition, one quarter of respondents reported that they have no or limited capabilities in collecting real-time information. Even if they are collecting data but it is not collected in real-time, the usefulness of the data decreases since the data could change by the time they have determined actionable insights.
Another issue that is brought up frequently when discussing digital transformation in water is cybersecurity. With water being an essential infrastructure, companies cannot risk a “hack” of their water system or theft of their water data. This is why it is essential to ensure secure digital water systems are continuously updated and kept up to date on any cybersecurity threats in the sector.
Companies must also look at digitizing their water quality as an investment, both in technology and people. Water companies, though traditionally might not have prioritized strategizing for a sustainable workforce must think about the current era of a retiring workforce and design architectures where technology-keen people are onboarded so that the youth of this nation is interested in being part of the water sector. Every individual being brought into the fold of this industry must be an advocate for digital transformation and solutions deployed at plants should no longer become knowledge that’s not transferable. This is key to the sustenance and growth of this sector while preserving the ability for delivering clean, safe and affordable drinking water for all of our communities.
The water industry has the potential to reap substantial benefits from digitizing water quality monitoring. As the industry continues to face unprecedented challenges such as stringent regulation, limited supply and the threat of climate change, water leaders must now move forward in embracing the digital transformation ahead of them with technologies like AI, ML, Robotics, IoT and innovative business models like SaaS and value driven payment structures that can accelerate if not act as enablers for this transition. They must leave behind antiquated notions of incremental change and implement bold new strategies that enable proactive action. Implementing advanced, predictive technologies will allow organizations to autonomously monitor water efficiency and water quality.
Empowering a user to have a vertically integrated solution that has the flexibility to operate within their existing set of tools, environment and sensors is incredibly important. At the same time, having the ability to leverage their centralized data across all systems to determine how actionable insights are achieved is paramount in the water quality monitoring process. The power of the data that most users possess through a variety of siloed solutions is completely unrealized today.