South East Water IoT trial aims to transform water networks


In Australia, South East Water ran a pilot test on a new low-powered communications technology that aims to extend the use of real-time monitoring, and to help improve the reliability, efficiency and safety of its water and sewer assets. The Victorian utility partnered with global ICT providers to trial Narrowband-Internet of Things (NB-IoT) technology on its network infrastructure on the Mornington Peninsula, in Melbourne’s CBD, and in the Dandenong Ranges. In an interview with Metering & Smart Energy International, Kevin Hutchings, managing director at South East Water, shares the results of the pilot and plans for future deployment.

MSEI: What was the firm’s objective prior to the start of the trial? Why was the NB-IoT standard chosen, compared with other LPWA solutions available?

KH: NB-IoT is just one of several (LPWAN) standards that we’re trialling. We’ve always recognised that connecting devices across our network, and being able to exchange data with assets regardless of their location, has huge benefits for our customers and our organisation. The ability to monitor and control on a real-time basis enables us to improve the reliability, efficiency and safety of our networks and assets, and we’re currently assessing the suitability of a range of low-powered wide area network (LPWAN) standards. Earlier this year we began trialling NB-IoT technology. As an open standards communications protocol standardised by 3GPP, NB-IoT has attracted widespread investment and has a number of strengths in areas like security. However, it’s just one technology of several that we’re trialling.

MSEI: What did South East Water’s communication framework look like prior to the trial – what technology was used for data transfer? How successful has NB-IoT been in improving the reliability, efficiency and safety of its water and sewer assets?

KH: South East Water’s communications framework is currently based on 3G, including our OneBox technology. Developed by South East Water, OneBox is an intelligent monitor-and control device that underpins a range of water and wastewater solutions we deliver to customers. For example, we’re currently connecting 16,500 homes on south-east Australia’s Mornington Peninsula to a reticulated pressure sewer network, fitting each property with a OneBox device. Real-time data from OneBox enables our network operators to control waste water flows from each property and identify faults across the network.

OneBox is also used in our Tank-Talk solution, which uses realtime weather forecast data to control rainwater tank inflow and outflow, optimising capacity and reducing stormwater run-off.
Replacing 3G technology in OneBox with an LPWAN communications platform like NB-IoT will enable us to design, build and operate these and other intelligent solutions more cost-effectively and to more customers in our region.

Beyond OneBox, we’ve also trialled pre-standard NB-IoT chipsets in new environments, such as manhole entry points to monitor access to our assets, and also in parking areas at our facilities. Overall the trial has been a great success. Coverage and penetration have exceeded expectations. Not only is less power used to transfer data, but lower hardware costs make it feasible to connect to different asset types, and achieve a range of additional benefits. We’re excited about the opportunities it presents.

MSEI: What were some of the deployment considerations and challenges?

KH: With our network spanning high density, suburban and rural environments, and with assets located above and below ground, distance, penetration and durability were all key factors. We therefore tested the technology in a range of different environments with different densities. The project included areas on the Mornington Peninsula, the Dandenong Ranges and Southbank, covering approximately 1,000 square kilometres in total.

MSEI: NB-IoT works to connect objects in difficult to reach locations that have low power requirements and that have been too expensive to connect previously. Can you talk a bit about how it works and give examples of locations previously beyond reach that you anticipate will be connected with NB-IoT, especially with regard to the utility’s water networks? How has NB-IoT proved successful in terms of improved coverage and penetration?

KH: One example is the use of NB-IoT technology on sensors in sewer mains, which are alerting us to potential sewer blockages sooner, and without the need for dangerous physical inspections. This wouldn’t have been viable with 3G communications only.

MSEI: What benefits have been realised that relate specifically to metering – like extended battery life due to reduced power consumption?

KH: While our main goal with testing was to discover how to operate our networks more efficiently, there are also obvious customer-specific uses like usage information, and pressure and leak detection. That’s why we’re working with Yarra Valley Water and City West to look at customer needs and preferences, and identify how this technology can deliver the most benefit in a customer environment. But we know that customers are already asking for greater insights into their usage, and expect us to identify problems and fix them sooner. Providing a single meter read every three months isn’t really good enough and our customers expect more. LPWAN technologies have a huge role to play here.

MSEI: How has the technology impacted your bottom line?

KH: This has been a proof of concept and we’re still in the early stages of planning. However, we fully expect LPWAN technologies to be cost effective compared with our existing 3G options.

MSEI: Are there any plans in place for large-scale rollout?

KH: We’re still assessing different LPWAN standards, but see enormous opportunity across our network. It’s about delivering the value our customers expect, while maintaining affordability, and there’s no doubt that with technologies like NB-IoT, we can achieve both. What’s more, our trial has shown we can achieve it today. These are exciting times for the water industry. MI

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Nicholas Nhede is an experienced energy sector writer based in Clarion Event's Cape Town office. He has been writing for Smart Energy International’s print and online media platforms since 2015, on topics including metering, smart grids, renewable energy, the Internet of Things, distributed energy resources and smart cities. Originally from Zimbabwe, Nicholas holds a diploma in Journalism and Communication Studies. Nicholas has a passion for how technology can be used to accelerate the energy transition and combat climate change.