Americans waste nearly six billion gallons of fresh water a day – and that’s before it even reaches their homes.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that between 14 to 18 percent of our nation’s water supply is lost through leaks, breaks, faulty meters and generally inefficient, aging infrastructure. Drought-stricken California, for example, loses as much as 228 billion gallons a year this way, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, and sometimes in spectacular fashion. In July 2014, 20 million gallons of water gushed through the UCLA campus after a nearly century-old water main burst under Sunset Boulevard. According to news reports, it took city officials nearly four hours to fix the break while buildings and garages flooded and at least five people needed rescue.
Replacing the nation’s water infrastructure is both unlikely and unaffordable, but the world of big data might have a better answer: “smart water.” By using information technology to make water utilities more efficient, cities can stop leaks, save water and better target their investments in infrastructure.
One firm seeking to bring cutting-edge analytics to the world’s generally low-tech water sector is the Israeli-based software startup TaKuDu, founded in 2009. The company’s software analyzes the reams of raw data already being gathered by a city’s water network – such as changes in water flow, pressure and quality – to look for signs of leaks or other inefficiencies.
Water networks behave in predictable ways, says TaKaDu founder and CEO Amir Peleg. In a residential neighborhood, for example, water flows will spike in the morning while families ready themselves for work and school and drop at night while everyone is asleep.
“If you can learn the pattern – the time of the day, the day of the week – you know how the network behaves in a ‘normal’ condition,” said Peleg. “Then you can spot a leak when it doesn’t look like ‘normal.'” Unexpected changes in flow, for instance, could signal leaks and warn of potential bursts.
In Peleg’s native Israel, TaKaDu helped the city of Jerusalem cut its water losses to below 10 percent. And in Australia, Queensland’s Unitywater utility credits the company’s software for reducing water losses by 2.3 billion gallons since 2013, as well as for lowering response times to network problems by more than half. In addition to Israel and Australia, the company’s biggest market, utilities in Spain, Chile, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Holland, Portugal and Romania have also adopted TaKaDu’s software. In August 2015, the company announced a global partnership with 3M, which is also one of its investors. Peleg says he hopes to have his first U.S. contracts within the next year, likely in California.
The potential savings from “smart water” are significant. According to the World Bank, as much as 30 percent of the world’s fresh water is lost through leaks and inefficiency at a cost of at least $14 billion a year. Cutting this waste by just half, says the World Bank, would produce enough fresh water to supply 90 million people.
Peleg argues that more efficient water networks could have at least as much impact, if not more, as conservation. “It’s a bit ridiculous if you have a utility that’s losing 20 to 30 percent of its water, and you push your consumers to save water,” said Peleg. “If they reduce their consumption by 10 or 15 percent, the supplier is still losing 15 or 20 percent.”
According to the United Nations, as much as two-thirds of the world could be facing water shortages as soon as 2020 – the result of climate change, environmental degradation and increasing demands from agriculture and population growth. The United States has also seen its share of interstate “water wars,” which are escalating again as a result of the current drought. One survey found that across the United States, water prices in major metropolitan areas have already risen 40 percent since 2010. And while U.S. water conflicts are more apt to play out in courtrooms, water shortages in other parts of the world are potentially serious risks to global security.
But while more places are looking to companies like TaKaDu to better manage their water supply, the pace of change isn’t fast enough to keep up with growing scarcity, says Peleg. “There is a lack of entrepreneurship and innovation in the water sector,” Peleg said.
But in California at least, officials have begun to focus more on the problems of water loss and leaks. In September 2015, the state passed legislation – despite the objections of water utility industry groups – requiring water utilities to report publicly how much water they lose each year in leaks and breaks. According to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, repairing leaks and other inefficiencies could help California water utilities recover as much as 40 percent of the water it now loses – and help prevent further incidents like the flood at UCLA.
“Most of the discussion is about conservation, and the finger points to the customer,” said CEO Peleg of TaKaDu. “We need to give incentives to water utilities to become more efficient and to measure what they do and how they do it.”