Webinar Q&A – Using Customer Leak Notifications to Support Customers and Conserve Water

June 1, 2023

Last month you attended an Iota hosted a webinar on ‘Using Customer Leak Notifications to Support Customers and Conserve Water.’

We welcomed to a panel:

  • Damien Bell, Project Manager of Digital Metering at Sydney Water
  • Bronwyn Fox, Metering ServicesManager at Unitywater
  • Frances Ip, Process Improvement Manager at South East Water
  • Ash Walsh, Senior Project Manager of Digital Utility at South East Water, and
  • Hosted by David Mason, Customer Director at Iota

Thank you again to all of our speakers.

The large attendance and many interesting questions demonstrated strong interest in the topic. Due to time, we didn’t get to answer all questions. Please see below answers to the questions posed.


Question and Answer


What’s included in the onboarding and welcome pack?

Unitywater: Onboarding and welcome packs will be considered as part of the broader Unitywater rollout strategy.

Sydney Water: As we’re still early in the rollout, we don’t have a welcome pack but do provide communication on our intent to digitalise their meter and the benefits.

South East Water: We don’t have incentives within the welcome pack. It focuses on education around the benefits customers will receive from digital meters, setting the expectation around leak alerts, driving customers to the portal to see their usage, or updating their contact details, so we can send leak alerts. However, 16% of total respondents to the feedback survey said they logged into the portal and updated their digital contact details.


Do customers have access to their consumption data via a portal or app?

Unitywater: Not at this stage. We will be looking into options on how to present the data to customers in the future.

Sydney Water: We don’t offer a consumption portal at this stage. Though we are looking at this as an option as part of our digital customer platform.

South East Water: SEW customers have access to their data on our portal.


What percentage of [South East Water] leak notifications sent on day 1 are found to be a leak?

South East Water: It’s difficult to give an accurate percentage of events that are due to false positives. When a continuous flow alarm is triggered, flow has persisted for at least 24 hours. In practice, that’s one and a half to two and a half days before the notification is sent to the customer. During this time, some customers will notice and resolve the leak. We set the notification timing for small leaks at seven days because there is the chance of false positives and to give customers the opportunity to find and resolve these before sending a notification, but we felt that for large leaks, there was much more urgency as the impact on bills was significantly higher.


What frequency do you send notifications if the leak isn’t resolved?

Unitywater: Notifications are sent to customers three times, seven days apart.

Sydney Water: We are still early in our CFN process. We currently send out a daily SMS and follow up large leaks with a call after two days. We are looking at following up all notifications between 14 and 30 days.

South East Water (SEW): For large leaks, the first notification (via SMS, email or letter) is sent one day after the continuous flow alarm has been triggered, for small leaks the first notification is sent seven days after. If continuous flow is ongoing, the second notification is sent seven days after the first one.


The leak saving [for Sydney Water] is really positive, what was the uplift from prior to the pilot, to during the pilot?

Sydney Water: The big uplift is how to scale and reduce manual intervention. This means having confidence in the algorithms detecting the leaks, the systems in place for communication to the customer and the management of the notification to closure. We still have a number of manual processes being utilised, so there is further word to be done for this process to be BAU.

A third notification is sent fourteen days after the second notification. For large leaks, an outbound call is currently made at the second notification.


With an increased awareness of customer leaks, has this resulted in fewer (or smaller) leak rebates to customers and hence a reduction of non-revenue water?

Sydney Water: We are too early in the process to determine the impact of notification on leak rebates, though we do envision we’ll see a reduction.

South East Water: We are doing some analysis on the difference between digital meters versus analogue meter concerning leak allowances. As we have scaled, detailed analysis is still to be performed as one of the next steps, to determine whether there is a correlated reduction in leak allowance applications to leak allowance grants versus customers with analogue meters.


Are there any insights with respect to why some customers don’t fix their leaks when notified of one?

Unitywater: We will be surveying the circa1700 customers who have received a leak notification. We are hoping this information will lead to greater insights on both repaired and unrepaired leaks and how we can improve communications and support for our customers.

Sydney Water: In many cases it’s time and money. Customers don’t want the expense of engaging a plumber and don’t have the time to resolve issues themselves. Or they simply don’t consider the cost of the leak to be a significant financial impact.

South East Water: We’ve found that approximately 60-70% of customers have fixed their leaks after the first notification (and up to 96-99% after the third, depending on the size of the leak). Potential scams and phishing are one of our challenges that will need to be addressed to maintain high closure rates.


What challenges have been encountered from a customer behaviour standpoint. What proportion of customers don’t want to transition to digital meters and what are their reasons for not doing so?

Unitywater: We have decided not to offer an opt out option for customers in the Digital Neighbourhood under the trial. We have had very limited resistance to installing smart meters. We believe this is due to the customer communication plan developed for the trial.

Sydney Water: Regarding the installation of meters, the challenges we faced are the typical access issues and insufficient clearance around the meter to perform the exchange. On the smart meter side, we did have a few issues regarding the activation of comms. Some meters required a revisit to recommence activation. Less than 1% customers opt out of a digital meter. One reason given is the impact of a radio device on their health.

South East Water: We have had a 0.5% of customers (in areas we planned for digital metering) opt out of having a digital meter to date. There are many reasons for this, including concerns about data privacy, potential for damage to their property (e.g., having to cut down a tree), health concerns, lack of trust due to a previous experience with smart electricity meters and wanting to ensure meter readers still have jobs in the future.


A challenge noted was availability of customer contact data. Do you actively do anything to uplift contact data and how successful has it been?

Unitywater: We run campaigns on keeping customer contact data up to date which has multiple benefits for the customer. They can update their details through the customer portal or through our Contact Centre.

Sydney Water: We recently commenced our digital customer platform allowing the online management of account and billing data. This will increase the uplift of contact data. The adoption rate of this platform has been close to 40%. This platform was only introduced 4 weeks ago, and we plan to launch with a campaign in the June/July timeframe. Uplift has been less than 1% for the month though there has been no campaign or advertisement.

South East Water: Yes, in the meter exchange communications and welcome pack sent to customers, there is a call to action to update contact details for leak alerts. Although there were customers that did update their details either on the portal or by calling us, we don’t have an exact percentage.


Are you providing assistance to support customers to connect with a plumber and what support is available if customers who don’t have the financial means to fix their leak?

Unitywater: Not at this stage of the trial. We encourage customers to find a private plumber.

Sydney Water: We have a team of plumbers that can resolve leaks for our customers. This is booked through us. We offer services to resolve minor leaks.

South East Water: In terms of plumbing support, we are running a trial with Priority Plumbing who are doing a free virtual leak audit for customers who want it. They walk around on their phone and the plumber puts together a report on what the issue is, as well as a cost estimate. The results for the customers who have taken it up have been great, with nearly 50% of audits finding the leak. For customers who are in our hardship program, there is a free plumbing service that we offer to assist those customers in finding and fixing leaks.


Regarding the smart meters installed, were these funded by the customer or by the water providers?

Unitywater: Utility funded.

Sydney Water: Smart meters installed as part of our Digital rollout have been funded by Sydney Water. Leak detection is just one benefit of a smart meter with these meters also providing operational and network benefits.

South East Water: The digital metering business case and associated costs are part of the funding submission we put forward to the regulator, which has been approved. All costs are included in customers water bills as they are now for any metering services.


By reducing customer water consumption, the water utility reduces its revenue. Will the cost of water per kilolitre increase as a result?

Unitywater: We have installed smart meters to 3% of their total fleet therefore the CSL savings are not reflective of a revenue impact.

Sydney Water: The cost of water is determined by IPART who look at the cost to run a business and the revenue. In theory it could drive an increase. Though I feel the bigger impact to the cost of water is infrastructure costs.

South East Water: Demand for water in Melbourne is increasing due to population growth and will outpace the available supply at some point. SEW’s business case is structured around demand reduction (whether this be actual consumption or water lost), which will help to push out additional infrastructure costs (e.g., additional desalination plant, more recycled water etc.). As the cost of water per kilolitre is primarily driven by capital and operation cost to supply water to our customers, this should help keep prices down. The SEW Digital Meter Business Case is an economic model which had revenue turned off, so the impact of any “lost revenue” isn’t taken into account.


Are you planning to partner up with multiple meter vendors or just one, to ensure supply chain issues are minimised when scaling, and do you have a direct relationship with a telco provider if using NB-IoT?

Unitywater: We are currently testing multiple technologies on two IoT networks to ensure we install fit for purpose smart devices to meet the needs of our customers and the business. We have direct contact with each of our network providers.

Sydney Water: We plan to partner with multiple vendors to procure meters. Yes, we have a relationship with a telco for NB-IoT.

South East Water: We have multiple meter vendors and intend to have multiple vendors in our rollout phase as well. We have a direct relationship with two telco providers.


What are your plans for ongoing operation and maintenance of smart meters as you scale, considering it needs an upskilled workforce compared to mechanical meters?

Unitywater: Alarm management will be a key focus to ensure the optimum performance of the assets. We have a valued partnership with our incumbent meter replacement contractor, who has upskilled their staff and expanded their capability in line with our rollout to date and the digital maturity of the business. We anticipate that this will continue as we scale.

Sydney Water: We’re still evaluating technologies and operating models which best suit our digital rollout. We understand it’s a different skillset required to manage a smart meter over a mechanical meter adding a communication element. Meter installers need to have more than a plug-and-play mindset with additional technical knowledge. We have a digital team that is responsible for ensuring data gets from the meter into Sydney Water systems which will grow as we scale.

South East Water: We have alarms and events raised on our meters and have an operational team that monitors and acts accordingly. We’ve been working over the last couple of years on refining the alarms, dashboards, and process for how we operationalise the data. There is a lot of work concerning the operations and maintenance of the meters, not just upskilling of the workforce. We also will potentially need new tools and if we do need to replace a digital meter, this requires replacement stock. Currently we don’t have the stock available at the levels that we will need as we scale so if there are problems with meters that we can’t resolve on site, then we are replacing them with analogue meters until we get to that point where we can really stabilise the stock levels.


Did you have any issues with the digital meters? Trials in our LGA have been found to be unreliable and so still needed manual reads etc. to be done.

Sydney Water: We trialled a number of meter manufacturers and communication technologies. We’re currently in extended trials with three manufacturers using NB-IoT and have a low failure rate. While we have had a few meters that have failed that are being managed by a warranty process, it’s been a low number. Communication via the NB-IoT network has also been extremely positive with a high daily read/connection/communication read rate.

South East Water: We have done extensive trials and validation of reads, finding the meters to be very accurate.


Do you have the capability for integration with your billing system or will that be incorporated when the project scales?

Unitywater: We are currently looking at the options on how to bill from smart meter data. We will look to test billing prior to any further roll outs.

Sydney Water: We currently bill from a subset of our digital meters via a manual process. We have an active project to complete an integration into our billing system which will take a minimum of three to six months.

South East Water: We have been billing from digital meters for the last two and a half years. The data is called from the IoT platform each day for specific meters and fed into our billing system.  The exception rates for missing reads have been very low compared to manual readings (0.3% vs 2%+).  Our next steps are to build more robustness into the process to ensure it can work at scale.


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