Enhancing business performance in the water sector

The University of Exeter’s Centre for Water Systems (CWS) undertakes internationally leading fundamental and applied research in the $5,000billion global water sector.

Founded in 1998, the Centre for Water Systems is an internationally leading research centre within Exeter Engineering’s Water and Environment Group. It is co-directed by Professor Dragan Savić and Professor David Butler and addresses current and future challenges in the sustainable management of water in cities.

CWS staff have co-authored authoritative best practice guides with highly respected practitioner publishers: the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Spon Press.

One such guide is CIRIA’s Guidance on Water Cycle Management for New Developments, produced in 2010. It summarises and distils extensive research from CWS, to meet the urgent challenge of how to provide water services for new housing developments in water-stressed areas. It is widely used by practitioners in construction and the built environment, a sector with a gross value added of £89.5billion amounting to 6.7 per cent of the British economy in 2011.

In 2012 BRE’s designing Resilient Cities: A Guide to Good Practice was produced and sets out a framework for implementing robust, future-proofed solutions for urban regeneration. Four of the case studies included are specifically derived from CWS research. The guide is unique in supporting city planners, councillors, architects and their consultants to redesign cities to be sustainable whatever the future holds. For example, multinational construction and engineering firm CH2M HILL is using the future scenario framework for key future projects, and is influencing the sustainability planning of cities across the world.

Spon’s Urban Drainage is a book that was originally conceived as a text for students which may also be of use to practitioners but has also been widely taken up and used by professionals. In the third edition (2011) the chapter, Towards sustainable water management, draws on research from completed projects, best practice and CWS’s published research findings.


CWS software and knowhow have been used extensively by water service providers (such as Scottish Water) and their consultants (including SEAMS, originally an Exeter spinout) to enhance business performance by identifying efficiencies, saving costs and improving operation. Optimisation software has been made freely available and has hundreds of users worldwide including consultants and financial organisations.

The Centre’s EPR sewer deterioration model has been data validated by an industry funded research project and subsequently widely used to model water asset deterioration and to develop infrastructure risk models for the water industry price review process PR09 (2009 - 2014). Users include Anglian Water, South West Water (in collaboration with Mouchel), Severn Trent Water (in collaboration with RPS Water) and Wessex Water.

In 2002, the Universities of Exeter and Sheffield span out the company SEAMS. In 2013 the company has an annual turnover of £3.4million and is the industry leader in software and analytic services for asset investment planning decisions. SEAMS used WiLCO, a decision support tool developed by the centre to guide water utilities in developing pipe rehabilitation priorities, extensively to support Scottish Water’s £1.1billion strategic infrastructure investment decisions for their PR09 business plan. Benefits were not only the transparency of the decisions made under strict audit conditions but also that the approach identified significant efficiencies of up to 15 per cent over the utility’s own investment plans.

The Neptune project decision-support system developed by CWS improves real-time fault management of water distribution networks. The system takes advantage of intelligent computational methods and tools applied to real-time logger data providing pressures, flows and tank levels at key locations to allow managers to assess and respond to service provision risk. The prototype was tested on networks in Yorkshire Water (2009-2010) and was so successful it is now (2013) being customised for United Utilities via an Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Partnership. This methodology has been granted a 2009 patent and this was subsequently sold to project partner ABB Technology.

The optimisation software GANetXL has been developed and perfected by the Centre since 2008 and has over 400 users worldwide including consultants (eg, Mouchel), financial institutions (eg, JP Morgan) and industrial research organisations (eg, SCION Research).

The software provides easy access to evolutionary, multi-objective optimisation algorithms for non-specialists. It has recently (2012) been used by consultants AECOM for South West Water to optimise successfully sewer rehabilitation planning considering costs, structural improvements and critical risk of failure. Cost reductions of almost 50 per cent have been demonstrated compared with original estimates of £4 to 5million a year spend.