With blockages and overflows being frequent problems for wastewater infrastructure, Sydney Water is undertaking a $15 million wastewater monitoring internet of things (IoT) deployment across its network. Already, Sydney Water is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per month with sensors that can detect blockages before they cause damage.

Set to be the largest project of its kind in Australia, the agreement will see Sydney Water install over 26,000 blockage detection devices across 4,600km of wastewater infrastructure by June 2024.

As of October 2023, Sydney Water has already installed 15,000 devices across its wastewater network that causes 70per cent of overflows to waterways. The sensors detect about 20 blockages in the gravity wastewater network per month on average, saving approximately $400,000 in incident costs.

The devices, from project partners Kallipr and Metasphere, are data loggers attached to sensors that communicate regular data readings. The sensors are installed on existing sewer infrastructure and frequently send back data readings, which are pre-configured to trigger an alarm when certain thresholds are met – to indicate a potential blockage.

As the system detects blockages in wastewater pipes before they lead to wastewater discharge into customer properties and the environment, incidents can be avoided that could pose a public health risk and incur massive clean-up costs and result in reputation damage.

Sydney Water Head of Operational Technology, Craig Earl, is excited about the multi-million dollar initiative. “This is a transformational project for Sydney Water,” Mr Earl said. “We’re stepping into the Internet of Things with internet-connected devices. We’re leading the industry on some of this new deployment, which is resulting in massive savings via early detection of blockages in our wastewater network.

“We’ve worked with other utilities around the country and industry partners as well. We’re really focused on that Australian ability to drive innovation, not just nationally but on a global scale as well.”

Significant cost savings

The majority of blockages are caused by tree roots penetrating pipes or access chambers, although grease and wet wipes also contribute to blockage build-up. More than 11,000 sensing devices have been installed in the past 18 months, and the deployment work continues at a rate of between 200-300 devices a week.

The sensors can withstand high humidity and water immersion. The more than five-year battery life reduces the need for maintenance and site visits significantly. The devices can reliably and securely record and send data from remote and difficult-to-access areas by operating on the NB-IoT network.

Sydney Water’s Internet of Things Manager, Christoph Prackwieser, said the cost savings generated by the sensors have been considerable. “So far, around 500 blockages at environmentally high-risk sites have been identified and cleared. We are saving $400,000 a month in avoidance costs with this technology,” Mr Prackwieser said.

Mr Earl said the results have been pleasing, with the data from the 15,000 devices currently installed creating a return every month on cost avoidance, plus the added benefit of protecting the environment.

Driving wastewater network digitisation

Mr Prackwieser said the IoT technology is a game changer. “The Internet of Things is a monitoring technology  which allows us to securely connect these devices via the internet to our systems. It’s been working very well and has generated good outcomes,” Mr Prackwieser said.

Mr Earl said the placing of the sensors is of paramount importance, so the utility has been very strategic about their placement; to maximise the ability to protect the environment.

“So many of our assets are around creeks and streams or places like Sydney Harbour where we’re installing these sensors, we’re ensuring we protect these special places,” Mr Earl said.

Installing the devices will allow Sydney Water to build on its highly successful wastewater management project. It is driving the digitisation of its existing wastewater networks and allowing for proactive management of blockage events within the infrastructure.

Mr Earl said he’s proud to be a part of the initiative and constantly shares his findings with his family. “They know how passionate I am about this project and listen to my stories. They say to me ‘yes Dad, yes Dad’. They know it’s something that excites me and it excites me because I know we’re making a difference to this great city,” Mr Earl said.

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