Market Insight

Consumer Engagement in Water is Key Takeaway at Itron Utility Week

November 03, 2014

Michael Markides Michael Markides Associate Director, Smart Utilities Infrastructure
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Water utilities are increasing their investment in new water technologies to improve the customer experience, according to observations by IHS analysts at Itron Utility Week in San Antonio, Texas. However, adoption of these technologies still has significant challenges to overcome, as water utilities have many obstacles inherently limiting the short-term market scaling of these products.

Numerous sessions given at the conference by both Itron employees and water utilities from around North America focused on a broad range of new water technologies that enhance the consumer experience. These solutions focus primarily on three key customer needs: accurate and reliable billing, leak detection and hourly consumption.

The benefits to the customer come from the installation of smart water networks; a collection of smart meters, sensors and communications networks; as well the backend analytics platforms that make the most of the data collected.


Consumer benefits being realized

Consumer engagement has historically been limited to billing disputes, and usually only when the there is disagreement on the bill by an angry consumer. Given the difficulty in maintaining accurate meter systems over long product lifetimes, dealing with billing disputes is often a point of contention for water utilities. But with a smart water network installed, the meter measurements are more accurate, more reliable, taken much more often and allow for a better customer/utility conversation over billing disputes.

IHS believes the concept of a smart water network would not exist without need for leak detection, both on the distribution mains and in the home. While difficult regulatory hurdles exist for getting water utilities to waste less water in their mains—a point noted often at the conference by both vendors and utilities—there is considerable momentum in the marketplace for leak detection in the home. Smart water technologies and advanced analytics are making it simple for water utilities to quickly notify a consumer of leaks in their home, an action that saves the consumer money while conserving water.

While leak detection is becoming more important for residential consumer engagement, it’s the hourly read data that is most appreciated in the commercial and industrial segment where water use is much larger. With hourly consumption figures, large water users can better understand how water is being utilized and make adjustments accordingly in order to conserve and save money. The technology for both large water users and individual residential accounts is served by common hardware, electronics, communications and analytics platforms—all through a citywide smart water network.


Conclusions for technology providers

Investments in water management technology by municipalities will accelerate globally, IHS forecasts, with emphasis on smart meters, communications networks, leak-detection sensors and analytics platforms. The most important drivers range from water scarcity, to customer engagement, to smart city movements. However, the conservative nature of water utilities alongside a lagging regulatory environment is a continuing problem for technology providers looking for scale.

IHS believes that successful consumer engagement will add to the technology market growth given a few considerations.

First, water utilities are small, community-level organizations that value the protection of jobs as well as the reliability and quality of the water they deliver. This well-known circumstance continues to put pressure on technology vendors to create their corresponding sales pitch. If a consumer engagement initiative improves water utility operational efficiencies (for example, in billing disputes), then what will become of the utility employees who handled this work previously?

Second, a common theme in many water-related conferences is that smart city initiatives are a catalyst for continued water infrastructure development. This was seen at Itron Utility Week, specifically in reviews of the smart water meter adoption program in Baltimore, Maryland, where the mayor and other public officials championed water infrastructure upgrades combined with smart city concepts.

Finally, there is still room for better technology in the municipal water sector. Given that water leaks in the mains and the residence are being done with multiple devices and even different analytics platforms, better market opportunities potentially exist for vendors that can create both a smoother and less labor-intensive installation of smart water network devices. To this end, suppliers that can efficiently integrate multifunctional devices together with a single analytics platform will grow more than their competitors in the expanding technology markets for water management solutions. 

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