Water utilities are responsible for one thing above all: supplying safe drinking water to their populations on a daily basis. In light of the recent public health crisis in Flint, MI, utilities have never been under more pressure from the public to perform this service. Simultaneously, factors such as unpredictable weather patterns, population growth and urbanization, and aging infrastructure are all working together to increase that pressure. In the face of these challenges – and with a finite supply of water — business as usual won’t do. Water utilities must find ways to innovate and evolve to meet future generations’ water needs.
So how can water utilities adjust to serve the population of the future while maintaining reliable, safe water delivery?
In more than 24 years as the CEO of the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board, I learned that the key to water utility operations is simple: do what you do best. That was always delivering safe, reliable water. For the rest, I learned to partner with the best.
Buy, Don’t Build
Recent technology evolution has opened up exciting new vistas for water utilities. Today they can better serve their constituents by installing smart meters and tapping into the power of big data. They can also deepen relationships with customers with specialized customer engagement software, cutting-edge GIS mapping solutions, and a wide range of updates to both the business and technical sides of the industry. All of these technologies further the mission of more effectively delivering safe water to residents.
But that doesn’t mean that water utilities should suddenly get into the GIS mapping business. Early in my career, we tried to build and maintain new systems in house. Simply updating all our various software systems was a full-time job—and not one at which water engineers excel at or do efficiently. Technological advancements should make the job of distributing safe drinking water more efficient, not get in the way of it.
Water utility executives are regularly introduced to technological advancements that can help their businesses. Whole new technological ecosystems have sprouted up, with a range of experienced companies ready to partner with water utilities to bring us best-in-class technology at low cost and without hassle.
Start With Smart Infrastructure
Consider the saga of smart meters, known in industry parlance as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). In an attempt to innovate, more and more utilities are choosing to implement AMI to reduce costs, bring improved data quality, better engage customers, and more effectively meet goals. With smart meters, water utility executives can analyze – in near real time – when their customers most use water, how they use it and if they have a leak. This information is extremely valuable when determining how to spend precious maintenance dollars.
Historically, water utilities took pride in building and owning equipment. Consider that water utilities used to maintain and upgrade their analog meters – and even drill their own wells. That tradition might tempt some to build their own AMI software platforms. But technology is so much more complex these days that it’s simply not a viable option. Recruiting and hiring fulltime talent to complete this work is expensive, not to mention developing and managing assembly lines and providing ongoing product support. It’s far more efficient to partner with the entrepreneurs and engineers who specialize in these new technologies and systems. Those third-party vendors have added benefits of learning from deployments around the country and can bring that shared knowledge to help your utility thrive right away—and avoid those growing pains.
Perhaps the primary obstacle that water utility executives must overcome when attempting to evolve their company into the water supplier of the future is apathy. How many water utility executives yearn to advance beyond their traditional role of silent, steady service provider? Is there really an incentive to go beyond what a utility has traditionally done?
Herein lies a substantial opportunity to buck the status quo. Water utilities now have at their disposal an entirely new generation of data analytics and customer engagement technologies built on years of development experience and feedback from water suppliers across the world. These systems offer all the digital communication capabilities found in modern customer-facing service organizations including web and mobile applications, email, text messaging, automated voice and interactive voice response features. They include robust data analysis platforms that support modern customer relationship management interfaces to help utilities proactively communicate with customers, accelerate call resolution, reduce payment delinquency, drive improvements in operational efficiency, and inform operating and capital investments by better forecasting the outcomes of different programs. With most platforms, this information is accessible using a smartphone, tablet or computer.
The returns on these investments can be colossal, offering significant benefits without the massive infrastructure headaches of the past. For example, water utilities can partner with a company like WaterSmart, a next-generation customer engagement platform provider built by veterans of the water industry, to engage their customer in communications that aren’t about rate increases, boil notices or system repair outages. Improved customer satisfaction builds the political capital and community trust needed to make the case for needed infrastructure investments. Utilities can also extend the lifespan of existing assets by better engaging customers in improved efficiency, adding up to millions if not billions in savings.
It’s an exciting new world. Incredible new technologies I could only dream of a generation ago are now available to water utilities, deployed in a matter of weeks at minimal cost and hassle. It’s up to water utility managers to seize this new future and “just add utility” to the incredible technology ecosystem available today.