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Rising household water usage during the pandemic put pressure on supplies

Using data from smart meters, researchers found dramatic shifts in household water usage at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and believe the data could be used to help predict demand in the future.

The team from Cranfield University said that consumers shifted from predominantly higher usage early in the morning to multiple peaks and continued demand throughout the day.

The study used machine learning algorithms to analyse and identify patterns in hourly water consumption data from 11,528 households in the East of England from January to May 2020.

The research is the first of its kind in the UK to quantify network consumption and segment households into different behavioural clusters according to significant differences in usage patterns.

It found an overall increase in household consumption from March to May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, with the gap opening as lockdown restrictions deepened.

In particular, a sharp increase in consumption could be seen in the fourth week of March 2020 which marked the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. This week saw a 10 per cent rise from the week before with the figure rising to 46 per cent above the pre-lockdown average in the fourth week of May.

“Quality data-driven research will provide the intelligence needed for water utilities to make strategic decisions,” said professor Leon Williams, a researcher on the project.

“Water utility companies are increasingly searching for ways to understand the full nature of household water use, how to improve network demand forecasting and achieve effective water efficiency interventions,” said Professor Stephen Hallett from Cranfield University.

“Understanding the impact of these unique patterns of behaviour on network demand can help in the design of demand forecasting."

The researchers separated households into four distinct patterns of water usage: early morning, late morning, evening peak and multiple peak. The multiple peak cluster experienced the most significant increase in the number of households during the lockdown period, with a 93 per cent rise between the third and fourth weeks of March.

The early morning cluster experienced the sharpest decrease in the number of households during the lockdown period, with a significant drop in their share of relative consumption between 7-8am, from 40 per cent down to 20 per cent.

Researcher Halidu Abu-Bakar said: “The Covid-19 lockdown has instigated significant changes in household behaviour across a variety of categories including water consumption, which in the south and east regions of England is at an all-time high. The impact of the extended time people stayed at home under the lockdown and the ensuing changes in behaviour arising from this led to an increase in household water demand, exacerbating existing pressure on network water supply.”

In October 2020, E&T looked at how drought fuelled by climate change has put the UK water network under unprecedented strain, with experts predicting an “existential threat” in 25 years if action isn’t taken soon.

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