Water Utility Uses Cell Phones to Gather Field Data

Feb. 7, 2006

About the author: James Anthony is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at 713/465-1519 or by e-mail at [email protected].

We were ‘drowning in paperwork’ trying to read and decipher handwritten log sheets and to compile that data into our various weekly, monthly and annual reports,” said Bobby Whisenant, water production and wastewater treatment supervisor for the city of Pearland, a large, fast-growing suburb of Houston, Texas.

Whisenant is responsible for delivering eight million gal of water daily to more than 56,000 residential, commercial and industrial consumers. He manages three supervisors and 22 operators who monitor and maintain 11 water plants, four wastewater treatment plants, 75 lift stations and more than 20,000 connections. With additional water and waste treatment plants coming online in the near future, he was facing a substantial data collection and management burden.

“Our initial concern was to find a way to simplify data gathering by our field personnel and hopefully improve data quality,” Whisenant said.

Cell phones replace log sheets

Operators used to collect plant data via handwritten log sheets. Every week these log sheets would be collected and transcribed into a spreadsheet. Supervisors spent hours inputting data to generate operational and managerial reports as well as reports for other entities such as Pearland city officials, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Clean Rivers Program. This was a time-consuming and inefficient process.

After reviewing different options, Whisenant decided to use BirdNest Services, a company that provides a wireless data collection service through the use of a cell phone.

According to Keith Frazier, president of BirdNest Services, Inc., “Our services were designed to provide the water industry an economic solution to accurately and efficiently capture data one time at the source.” The service saves time for workers and managers and eliminates errors caused by redundant data entry. The service also allows managers to take advantage of readily available data to generate operational or compliance reports, or to “feed” other back office systems such as asset management.

“We were delighted that a service was available that used cell phones for field data entry and retrieval, and also provided automatic report generation,” Whisenant said. “Now we don’t have to rely on clipboards with hard-to-read hand-written field reports, or worry about data errors during data entry and subsequent processing.”

Other advantages

The service has been in daily use at the Pearland facilities since July 2005. Pearland has already utilized the automatic report generation feature to better manage water conservation compliance. Pearland now generates a daily pumping report instead of a weekly pumping report for nine wells.

“This report took hours to generate, so we only did it once a week to stay within compliance regulations,” Whisenant said. “With the service, we’ve been able to take a more proactive approach to managing water conservation by generating these reports on a daily basis. We would not have been able to accomplish this without the rapid report generating capability of this service.”

Because the program is web-based, it is easy to share information with other users through the assignment of a secure password and ID. Prior to implementing the new system, Pearland submitted their Texas Clean Rivers Report on 21 sample sites in an e-mail attachment.

According to Whisenant, this report formerly took many hours to compile and submit. Currently, it is generated with the push of a button, and shared with other users by assigning a password to view and download individual reports.

“The time we save clearly pays for a month of service. For a community strapped for cash—as most are—this new cost-effective system provides very rapid payout, and both the payout and system output get better with use,” Whisenant said. “The service delivers uniform data presentation using both existing and custom-designed report templates.”

Whisenant also added, “We hear lots of claims by various vendors about their [service] features and benefits. We feel the one other characteristic vital to long-term success is after-sale service. Based on results to date, we look forward to many years of productive service.”

About the Author

James Anthony

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