Sep 22, 2021

Bridging the Gap Between Data & Decision-Making

How smart partnerships can lessen the burden for utilities in the digital and data age

Cincinnati, Ohio strived to eliminate 14 billion gallons of overflows into urban watersheds to address a consent decree using digital tools to manage data and improve decision-making..

Recent extreme weather events have brought renewed focus to the scale of our global water challenges. In February, millions of homeowners across Texas faced possible water contamination - or lost access to it entirely - when freezing temperatures and the state’s stressed infrastructure led to widespread blackouts. Just a few weeks later, on the other side of the planet, Taiwan cut water supplies to areas including key manufacturing hubs, due to the worst drought in decades. This pattern has continued through the year. In the US, nearly one in three people has experienced an extreme weather event just between June and August.These events, together with the impact of a global pandemic and diminishing budgets, lay bare the vulnerability of our infrastructure and exposed weaknesses in long-standing operating approaches among utilities and cities. 

RELATED: Texas Blackouts Stress Water & Wastewater Resiliency Plans

The reality is that many utilities are using outdated systems that are not holding up in the face of these challenges. Therefore, a significant factor for effective asset management is prioritizing and managing assets using risk. 

There is hope on the horizon. More and more, enterprising utilities around the world are leveraging data insights to make water and sanitation services more affordable and resilient, and delivering major financial and environmental gains in the process. And these utilities are typically better positioned to handle severe weather events thanks to enhanced visibility and continuity resulting in resilience across their networks. But how? Whether large or small, utilities have access to growing volumes of operational and performance data. What sets some apart is their capacity to filter and interpret the information available to them to directly inform actions that drive transformative outcomes for their communities.

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Navigating the Data Deluge

Digital technologies are changing the game for water operators. But they are just one part of the puzzle. Utilities, faced with difficult and capital-intensive challenges, are having to change how they manage water. They know what they want to achieve, but they need actionable data and support to deliver results. The daily roadblocks of internal complexities, challenging procurement practices, limited bandwidth and resources, and a deluge of often complex data can be daunting. This is leading utilities to lean into new partnerships – from peer-to-peer to tech providers and industry networks – to build a cohesive digital transformation roadmap. 

These partnerships equip utility leaders with a network-wide perspective, helping them to better understand what data matters and how it can be applied for smart choices and cost-savings. This new era of water management is disrupting the traditional relationship between utilities and technology companies. Gone are the days of transactional relationships; they are being replaced by deep consultative partnerships that focus on integrating digital solutions, data analytics and industry expertise to help build the future of water. 

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Working Hand-in-Hand to Visualize the Entire Water System 

Huge volumes of data are available via utility and external resources; and smart equipment connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and SCADA systems. Utilities need to consider innovative ways to integrate this data to deliver intelligence that better informs enterprise resource plans (ERPs) prepared as part of regulatory requirements. Utilities already have much of the input information they need – the challenge is understanding how to access it and apply it appropriately. Success is contingent on internal strategy and business processes, as much having the right technologies.

To this end, utilities are tapping into new forms of partnership to unlock the power of “decision intelligence”. This allows water operators to visualize their entire water system, providing network transparency so they can justify expenditures; and anticipate and prepare for challenges before they become major failures.

Decision intelligence is about more than new technologies; it’s about solving problems. By working with a partner, utilities can combine their intimate network knowledge with third-party application expertise to make best use of their data. The result is fact-based recommendations that allow utilities to optimize their systems and plants, to improve operations and extract more value from existing assets. Ultimately, this approach is empowering utilities to prioritize projects, save costs and maximize revenue by understanding the quantifiable risk and consequence of potential asset failures, instead of relying on outdated methods and responding to issues only when they occur. 

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Building Resilience Through Decision Intelligence

As water operators face growing variability in weather patterns among other threats, decision intelligence is facilitating system reliability and resiliency, with dramatic results. One way we are doing this at Xylem is through advanced asset performance management. In today’s world, it is critical that assets remain resilient – no matter the threat. A big part of this is collecting asset data and understanding how that data correlates with a utility’s day-to-day operation to promote greater system visibility. 

Take smart network optimization systems, for example. Sewer overflows are a growing problem for many utilities across the country, and with severe rain events on the rise due to climate change, utilities are challenged with managing them effectively to reduce risk and protect the environment. For most, doing so affordably is the bigger challenge. Xylem’s end-to-end wastewater optimization system integrates directly into existing wastewater networks, using a combination of sensors and weather data, digital twin technology and optimization algorithms to drastically reduce sewer overflows, minimize flooding events, and optimize functionality while maintaining regulatory compliance. 

Like many older cities, Cincinnati, Ohio has been striving to eliminate 14 billion gallons of overflows into their urban watershed to address a consent decree that also reaches into the billions of dollars. The original Phase 1 plan has reduced the overflow to 8 billion gallons, but cost the rate payers over $1 billion dollars. With so much left to do, it was evident the original plan was unaffordable and drew resources away from important factors such as asset management. When the City wanted to affordably reduce overflows, they partnered with us to create a program that utilized a combination of sensors and weather data, along with artificial intelligence, to create a real time decision support system (RT-DSS) that delivered automated control to optimize their wastewater network assets. 

RELATED: Our Water Future is Digital

The first RT-DSS implementation leveraged the sensor data to drive automated controls extracting even more value out of their existing assets. Ultimately, that solution reduced combined sewer overflow volume by 247 million gallons for less than half a penny per gallon. Solutions like this are now being deployed across their urban watershed in lieu of classic grey infrastructure. 

Leak Detection & Water Main Break Proactive Solutions

Capital planning is also an important part in promoting utility resiliency, particularly when utilities are now tasked with doing more with fewer resources. Armed with the correct insights, utilities can optimize capital planning by deploying digital technologies that identify vulnerable infrastructure across water and wastewater networks.

For example, predictive water main break solutions can use machine learning and advanced analytics to identify pipes with the highest risk of breakage, allowing utilities to implement a more accurate and cost-effective pipe replacement program. Not only does this help make a utility’s critical infrastructure more reliable, but it can also reduce operating costs which can ultimately be passed on to the rate-payer. 

A mid-sized Mid-Atlantic utility provides a powerful example. Serving 270,000 customers and with more than 1,000 miles of water mains across their system, and an average pipe age of about 50 years, the utility was experiencing water main breaks at an ever-increasing rate. Leveraging Xylem’s Asset Performance Optimization solution, we worked with the utility to develop a plan to reduce customer outages and improve service reliability, while cutting replacement spending by over 70% compared to other prioritization methods.

We partnered with the utility to develop a mobile, field-tracking application to improve break record accuracy, reduce labor time required to update their computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) and their geographic information system (GIS), as well as improve the output of the AI model. Using this asset performance methodology, the utility will experience a dramatic four-fold reduction of water main breaks, as compared to legacy prioritization approaches that are mainly subjective.  

Regardless of a utility’s pipeline network’s size or age, solutions like the above asset performance optimization solution can efficiently and cost-effectively analyze massive amounts of data (past pipe breaks, impact of pipe segment failures in both dollars and service loss, etc.) and quantify potential challenges in water pipeline networks, facilitating proactive maintenance before these issues negatively impact the community. 

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On Building Resilience 

Digital solutions, together with collaborative partnerships, are already helping some utilities to unlock insights required to detect problems and avoid major failures. Recent severe weather events and the pandemic remind us that this is a moment to scale the progress in our sector’s transformation to build a resilient, sustainable water future.

This means thinking differently about how we manage water. By leaning into new ways of working, we can realize the full potential of smart water technologies and bridge the gap between data and decision-making. Ultimately, we can ensure that utilities live up to the promise of safe, operational and compliant services for communities into the future. 

About the author

Michele Samuels joined Xylem in November 2020, taking up the role of Global Practice Manager of Asset Performance. With more than 20 years of experience in the water industry, she has seen the powerful impact that smart solutions, combined with consultative partnerships, can have on transforming the operation of utilities. By adopting a collaborative approach, her team can help utilities turn data into insight, allowing them to optimize their networks in practical ways, leading to better decision making and cost savings.

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