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Jan 27th, 2012
Vitens taps into ‘smart systems’ for water quality
Vitens, a large water supply company based in the Netherlands, may just be setting a trend that all water companies across the globe will follow—by incorporating smart systems into their distribution networks to monitor water quality
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As the largest water supplier in the Netherlands, Vitens fi rmly believes innovation will play a critical role in its future, so the company is the first in the industry to tap into using “smart systems” to monitor the water quality within its distribution network.
Vitens is participating in a pilot project with Optisense, a fellow Dutch company and creator of inline smart systems, and another R&D partner, the Public Utility Board of Singapore, all collaborating to test out Optisense’s lab-on-chip optical sensors, which can be custom tailored to detect any specifi c chemical substance.

“We’re a water supply company serving one third of the Netherlands, which is quite large, so in terms of monitoring the quality of our water for chemical and microbiological contaminants, smart systems are very attractive to us—all the way from the well to the tap,” says Rik Thijssen, Vitens’ manager of business development, and director of Vitens Solutions.

In the Netherlands, drinking water comes primarily from the tap, and chlorine isn’t applied to the water in Vitens’ distribution network because it isn’t needed, which speaks volumes about the exceptional water quality.

“It’s quite a unique situation we have in the Netherlands,” Thijssen notes. “From that perspective, it’s a bit odd that the only lab analysis takes place after the water has been consumed.”

But that’s changing. Rapid analysis and detection based on smart systems are becoming increasingly desirable to the water supply industry. Vitens is now pursuing smart system diagnostics for inline monitoring—centimeter-scale inline sensors that can sense changes in water quality and transmit data so it’s possible to switch off systems to prevent water from moving any further into the distributionnetwork.
Smart systems are strategically placed within Vitens’ network, starting in the well, production facilities, distribution system, but there are many other areas where sensors will useful in the future.

“Vitens expects to use a large number of sensors, so we require the sensor technology to be fairly inexpensive before we go ahead and make the investments,” says Thijssen. “We started using Optisense’s smart systems about 6 months ago, in the pilot project, and so far we’ve learned where to place the sensors, how to arrange the data and understand it, and we have a tool in place that responds to the signal from the sensors.”
 What’s the primary benefit of using smart systems? Speed, according  to Thijssen. “Right now if we take a sample it will take 2 up to 5 days to get the data. With a smart system, we can get the signal and info within 1-2 minutes, so we can take the right measures to stop further distribution of water containing contaminants,” he explains.
There have been challenges associated with implementing the smart system. One, Thijssen points out, is that everything focuses on the technology, when in fact the really tricky part is fi guring out how to handle all of the data for the system—essentially determining how to translate data into a specific action or response.

Another challenge is that, similar to gas and electricity industries, the processes of water supply production and distribution are managed from a production viewpoint. “We bump the water into a distribution network and assume that everything is going well,” he elaborates. “What we’re learning is that there is a lot of intelligence available within the network if you’re able to measure it. It’s important for us to be able to get information out of the process, such as pressure, speed, volume, and contamination. And there’s a huge need for smart systems in the future to implement within distribution networks. It’s a step toward developing smart grid approaches, since smart grids will require smart systems. That is still very much in the very early phase.”

The entire water industry is now focusing on Optisense’s water quality sensors, notes Thijssen, as well as investigating other options. Smart systems and smart grids are clearly part of the water industry’s future. And from Vitens’ perspective, Thijssen says it’s impossible to believe there isn’t a need for smart systems, and not just for drinking water.

One giant value-add associated with water quality monitoring using Optisense’s sensors is that it will inevitably reduce costs, because collecting samples and the logistics and infrastructure involved in the process are all quite expensive. Thijssen also expects the sensor technology to become less expensive over time, which will end up leading to reduced overall reduced water quality monitoring costs and also translate into huge energy savings.

Since the global demand for clean drinking water already exceeds the supply available, and demand will only continue to increase, which is not the case in The Netherlands, Thijssen says that methods to monitor and ensure water quality are becoming absolutely critical.

Inserting more technology into our production an distribution network only will be feasible if the business case is positive. Benefits in terms of energy-use, reduce of laboratory costs and increased speed of preventive measures are key. Extracting “intelligence” from our network should beneficial for all our operations 24/7.

Europe benefits from leading R&D projects in miniaturized smart systems. For example, the European Commission is supporting innovation and research in this fi eld, but also creating access to attractive technologies through COWIN.

As Géraldine Andrieux Gustin, partner at Yole Finance and coordinator of COWIN, states: “Vitens is a strong leader in innovation. We are working with them to promote attractive smart system technologies that match their expectations and
requirements. Initiating new collaborations and partnerships among leading European companies, like Vitens, with innovative solutions providers, will help to strengthen Europe competitiveness."

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