Northumbrian Water

In the North East of England, NWL trades as ‘Northumbrian Water’ in the supply of potable and raw water and the collection, treatment and disposal of sewage and sewage sludge.

About Northumbrian Water

Northumbrian Water Limited supplies 2.7 million customers in the North East with both water and sewerage services, trading as Northumbrian Water, and 1.8 million customers in the South East with water services, trading as Essex & Suffolk Water.

In 2019, Northumbrian Water Group was named the world’s most ethical water company for the eighth time and was awarded 19th Best Place to Work in the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For. Northumbrian Water was also named the number one place to work in the North East.

Northumbrian Water and Made Smarter Technology Accelerator

Angela MacOscar, Head of Innovation at Northumbrian Water, said: “At Northumbrian Water, we are always looking for ways that we can innovate to discover the best ways of working, for both our employees and our customers. Innovation is at the heart of everything we do, and by joining the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator programme we’re able to see first-hand how our partners and other technology providers can develop innovative solutions to some of our wicked problems in the water sector.”

Challenges brought to you by Industry Challenge Owner – Northumbrian Water

Northumbrian Water has two challenges for relevant startups. Applicants must choose only one challenge from the programme’s 14 challenges.

Read on to find out about our challenges

  • Challenge 1: Sewer blockages smart Porcupine
  • Challenge 2: Monitoring water quality within the distribution network and real time analysis

Challenge 1: Sewer blockages smart Porcupine

Challenge background

Sewer blockages are a real challenge for Northumbrian Water as they cause a significant proportion of sewer flooding (>90% of flooding incidents are attributed to blockages). In turn, unflushables in the sewer network (such as wet wipes and sanitary products) are a key contributor to sewer blockages. Northumbrian Water is subject to a financial penalty and reward system for its performance for both sewer blockages and sewer flooding, as well as the reputational impact.

Northumbrian Water has previously developed a device called ‘Porcupine’ which is placed in the sewer and traps unflushables on its spines. This helps to identify the source of unflushables, and target customer engagement to reduce blockages. The current method is, however, very labour intensive and with limited data collection capabilities.

For this challenge and from applications

Northumbrian Water is looking to develop a ‘smart’ version of the ‘Porcupine’ which can react to issues before they form a blockage or cause flooding. The solution will need to augment or replace the existing device with sensors and data collection capability in order to analyse depth of flow and identify the presence and origination of unflushables caught. The solution would potentially need to operate in restrictive conditions, with sewer pipes often 100mm in diameter while requiring minimal maintenance.

For Northumbrian Water it is important the solutions are scalable and cost effective. Visualisation of the inspection output is also important and the solution must be user-friendly for operators

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Challenge 2: Water network monitoring and real time analysis

Challenge background

Northumbrian Water wants to improve its visibility and understanding of water quality within a designated district meter area (DMA). The pathway of water within the network flows from water treatment works to storage reservoirs into DMAs before branching out to individual households. The flow into and out of each DMA is controlled by one or more boundary valves and flow is measured with a district meter. A DMA typically contains 10,000m of water main and supplies 1-2,000 properties.

Whilst water quality is measured at the treatment works where clean water is produced, visibility of the quality as it progresses through the network becomes less granular amongst the branches. Northumbrian Water are trialling water quality sensors at successive storage reservoirs and is recording pressure and flow measurements at the entry to the DMA, but within the DMA teams are reliant on manual sampling of the water. This process requires employees to physically take samples and transport them to labs for testing in a timely and compliant manner.

Northumbrian Water has two performance commitments regarding the contacts they receive from customers about water quality, these relate to the appearance and the taste or smell of the water.

Based on the current targets and the associated penalty/rewards, the avoidance of one of these contacts is worth approximately £2,000.

Through better visibility of water quality in the network Northumbrian Water’s aim is to reduce these contacts with an optimised programme of maintenance and a better notification system to inform customers of any issues.

The key parameters that would ideally be monitored at the inlet of the District Metered Areas are turbidity, UV254, conductivity and chlorine.

For this challenge and from applicants

Northumbrian Water is looking to develop a workable sensoring regime within the DMA which would help monitor and manage water quality, flow and pressure in near real-time. In turn helping identify and notify potential and actual leaks within the system.

The solution would need to be affordable, easy to install (with little interruption to the water supply) and compliant with drinking water inspectorate (DWI) regulation 31 when connected to a water pipe. Maintenance, calibration and replacement are key considerations as is the ability to communicate data effectively. Visualisation of the output is also important and the solution must be user-friendly for the operational technology department at Northumbrian Water.

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Challenge focused FAQs

We’ve had a couple of questions related directly to our challenges and Northumbrian Water, please see below:

(a) What are your health and safety procedures for working with startups in the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator programme during COVID/lockdown with respect to physical engagement?* (b) Would the team have to work on-site? If so, where?
Site work will be required to install any sensors on the network, this is likely to be somewhere in the Northumbrian operating region.

Depending upon the solutions received for the challenge, we are anticipating focusing upon specific areas in the North East to trial ideas, however these are yet to be confirmed. Any on-site work would be working alongside our own staff following necessary health and safety procedures.

What information is critical to display to your operators?
For the wastewater challenge, we believe there could be a range of information that would be beneficial to operators, such as detection of wipes on the device or changes in flow in the sewer., turbidity is the most important measure, followed by UV254, conductivity and chlorine.

For the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator, would you want to test solutions first in a small contained environment? Do you have test environments already and what is the scale/size?
We do have a small training facility in Durham but this would have limited use. The expectation is that we would carry out a trial on a section of the live potable water network so any sensors will need to be Reg 31 approved with the DWI.

We may have the opportunity to test a solution on a test rig sewer, which would enable concepts to be assessed without the safety risks associated with the live sewer environment. We would look into this option as a solution was submitted and developed further.

For challenge 2 regarding wastewater, with regards to the level/flow-in, you mentioned cost-effectiveness. What is the target price?
As the challenge is broad in its remit and could take a number of forms or approaches to the issue of sewer blockages, we do not have a target price in mind. We would have to consider the benefits offered by a solution against the cost of production.

For challenge 2: With regards to the level/flow-in, you mentioned cost-effectiveness. What is the target price?
As the wastewater challenge is broad in its remit and could take a number of forms or approaches to the issue of sewer blockages, we do not have a target price in mind. We would have to consider the benefits offered by a solution against the cost of production.

For challenge 2, have soft sensors been considered rather than installing new hardware?
No, we would be interested to know what soft sensors are though.

For more questions please see our programme FAQs here, or email madesmartertech@digicatapult.org.uk