Evolution of the Water Utility Control Room and the Water Control Room Forum

December 1st, 2015

Today’s water businesses are confronted with an array of challenges unprecedented in their scale and scope, ranging from capital constraints to more stringent environmental standards, climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions, aging infrastructure and population growth. At the same time, the industry is challenged to exceed rising customer expectations efficiently, effectively and sustainably.

In responding to these challenges there are many areas and priorities where innovation is required. Within the operations function water companies are creating new, highly centralised and integrated operations control centres that involve some of the most fundamental changes to operational management ever undertaken. Different water companies are at different stages in this journey.

John Brown looks at the evolving role of the control room and how the Water Control Room Forum (W-CRF) is helping water companies to meet some of the challenges.

The rise of the control room

The traditional control room was a relatively low-key affair; responsibilities included alarm handling (dispatch), basic network control and communication with field operatives, alongside various other functions such as site security and lone worker monitoring, liaison with third parties, issuing work orders, taking customer calls and other out-of-hours support. There was often a legacy of multiple autonomous control rooms covering different geographical areas and business functions (usually with different ways of doing things), and telemetry coverage was limited with little or no visibility of water distribution and sewerage networks.

In contrast, today’s 24/7/365 control centre is beginning to provide true, end-to-end water and wastewater network control and optimisation. It is a centre for risk, incident and crisis management and business continuity, and it acts as a focal point for operational information and a communication hub for the operational business. There is closer integration with the customer contact function and improved visibility of work affecting customers and customer service performance. The new control centre is much more reliant on instrumentation and (real-time) telemetry and other operational and corporate IT systems and data. There is improved data visualisation, including real-time situational awareness and cost/performance management information dashboards, and increasing use of sophisticated decision support tools and real-time optimisation and control applications.

However, the control centre still faces significant challenges in delivering improvements to customer service, the environment and cost efficiency, particularly in moving from reactive to more proactive management of service-impacting issues and further improving compliance and asset optimisation opportunities. This means anticipating performance, condition and cost avoidance opportunities and improving preventative capability, improving network agility and resilience and achieving calmer (water) networks with fewer interventions, assessing risk in real time and improving coordination and control of all system interventions. At the same time it involves establishing operational knowledge and improving knowledge management, and reducing reliance on local knowledge. And all whilst ensuring that activities are traceable to business objectives, support customers objectives and protect reputation and credibility with stakeholders.

Advanced data technologies will play an increasingly important role in managing and responding to network-derived information. While some parts of the smart water network vision are still a good few years away, the data revolution in the water sector is beginning to provide better insight into process/network behaviour and understanding in real time, enabling more effective, risk-aware decision making and increasing operational capability to respond proactively. Dynamic, real-time predictive model-based decision support tools are starting to appear in the control centre. Increasing use of sophisticated sensing with embedded processing and digital communications will only increase data volumes and further drive the need for real-time analytics.

Success in meeting these challenges is not only about technology. It involves moving to a service culture. It requires clear, joined-up, business processes. It requires up-skilling, training, recruiting and keeping the right control centre and field people. It involves developing relationships and trust which requires improved communication, involvement and engagement.

Enter W-CRF

In 2011 Northumbrian Water (NWL) recognised that there was an opportunity for water company control room professionals to work together and the Water Control Room Forum (W-CRF) was established with a mission to: “facilitate appropriate exchanges in order to share best practice” (see www.w-crf.org.uk). To date these exchanges have mostly been in the form of biannual meetings and workshops, hosted by different member water companies, with presentations and demonstrations spanning business issues, technology, processes and working practices, organisation, people and culture. A particular achievement, known as “Licence to Control (L2C)”, is addressing the skill gap as companies move from reactive control centres to more proactive ways of working; water companies are working together to create a national scheme that satisfies regulatory requirements and business need. The success of W-CRF has been reflected in the steady increase in membership which now includes almost every UK water company and Irish Water.

W-CRF operates as an offshoot of the Sensors for Water Interest Group (SWIG) and is chaired by Rob Elrington, NWL’s Operations Manager.

The future

Achieving higher business performance and customer service is a process of continuous improvement, not a one-off project. There is scope, even for the most advanced water companies, to build on work so far to achieve a further step change in operational performance in AMP6, and there will continue to be significant challenges.

There is a need to improve understanding of the opportunities offered by emerging smart technologies. Some companies will find that the potentially transformational benefits are being undermined by the limitations of legacy systems and infrastructures which are not designed or equipped to integrate with new technologies and to manage large volumes of real-time data. There is still significant scope for improving alarm system management and all companies will need to do more to tackle real-time data quality to avoid the garbage in, garbage out effect.

W-CRF has an important continuing role in facilitating the sharing of knowledge, experience and good/best practice to address these common issues. This includes continuing with the valuable ‘show and tell’ format and also engaging with other utilities and industries, academia and others. There is potential for W-CRF to do more, such as facilitating harmonisation of alarm system performance metrics and KPIs, and gathering and disseminating information to help companies navigate the smart water network maze and avoid duplication of effort and costly mistakes.

John Brown is an Information Systems Consultant and is the W-CRF Administrator (admin@w-crf.org.uk).

The published article can be viewed online, p59 of the Water and Sewerage Journal, Issue 4, 2015