Flow of Information

Nov. 3, 2016
Water treatment facilities find value in a real-time wireless communication system

About the author: Todd Rigby is director of sales for Rajant Corp. Rigby can be reached at [email protected].

It seems like every facet of our lives continues to become more challenging as we advance into the 21st century, but this also means we are consistently and actively working to solve these challenges by using technological progress to our advantage.

One sector that faces no shortage of challenges is that of municipal water utilities. Common challenges include:

  • Municipal budgets continue to tighten even as water and sewer infrastructure ages beyond its useful life—in fact, the American Water Works Assn. estimates that restoring the nation’s existing water systems to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. 
  • Extreme weather patterns across the country and the globe create droughts in some areas and flooding in others, meaning some utilities deal with too much water and others with not enough.
  • As populations skyrocket—the United Nations World Prospects report estimates that the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050—we are beginning to experience serious water shortages, not just in developing countries, but also in places like California.
  • Homeland Security has identified water and wastewater systems as critical infrastructure vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Adding to this list is yet another challenge that individual utilities are now experiencing firsthand: communications issues hamper access to real-time data, impacting a utility’s ability to realize full return on investment (ROI) in the technologies that rely on it.

A Communications Challenge

Many utilities rely on legacy supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and automated meter reading (AMR) systems to perform tasks like turning pumps and valves on and off, displaying real-time operational data, and providing equipment-wide and/or system-wide views of operation and alarms.

SCADA and AMR are highly useful tools that last a long time. The issues are not with them, per se. Rather, they lie with the wireless communications networks that enable these systems in two main areas: bandwidth and reliability.

Many networks that support SCADA, AMR and a multitude of other operations do not have the proper bandwidth to funnel the increasing amounts of data on which water delivery and treatment depend. Utilities are adding more network-dependent technologies that need to communicate and send data back and forth in real time for the treatment and delivery of water, but the networks they use are unable to handle the massive data load. Network bandwidth is quickly eaten up, which means messages back and forth between the various technologies and systems are delayed or worse, never received. 

The required bandwidth only continues to increase as utilities add more applications to enhance efficiency and security, which means that every application connected to the network becomes slower to respond—not an ideal situation when a water utility needs to remotely shut off a pump or open a valve in case of an emergency. 

An operator needs to know that electronic messages like shut-off signals between the utility and its various substations—which may be spread out over many miles—are sent and received in real time, and that data are always current on items like storage tank water levels and measurables like pH, dissolved oxygen, suspended solids and others. However, it is not uncommon for operators to send techs into the field to confirm that data are up to date or that the signal sent to a location actually was received, because of issues with communications reliability.

Many utilities also are looking to add security features to their facilities, especially in light of the Homeland Security warning. Security features like video surveillance systems and access control are bound to a networked communications system, and it is crucial that constant real-time data are accessible from these tools—but legacy networks are not as reliable as utility operators want or need them to be. 

A communications network is the backbone of so many parts of water treatment, and using a high-powered wireless network can help a utility not only to greatly improve the reliability of data and boost bandwidth, but also to help extract even more value out of the investments it has made in its other equipment and employees.

Some water utilities have upgraded to a wireless network type called kinetic mesh to meet communications challenges. 

Kinetic Mesh Network Empowerment

A kinetic mesh network is a high-bandwidth, low-latency network that combines wireless network nodes with networking software. It employs multiple radio frequencies and any-node-to-any-node capabilities to instantaneously route data via the best available traffic path and frequency, with up to 300 Mbps transfer rates.

In the event of interference, software dynamically redirects data packets over an alternate route, eliminating any gaps in communication and allowing on-the-fly transmission of real-time data. Routes are automatically built, and are evaluated for quality and performance with every sent and received packet. The network supports Wi-Fi and can be easily integrated with Ethernet-connected devices. A utility will not only be able to get better value out of its legacy tools like SCADA and AMR by ensuring the systems are always sending and receiving data in real time, but also will be able to ensure that access control systems and security features always show exactly who is where and what is happening at the exact moment of an event like a fire, overflow or pump failure.

There is no central control node, meaning no communications bottleneck and no single point of failure. These self-healing, peer-to-peer networks scale to hundreds of high-bandwidth nodes. The network operates with the same level of reliability no matter how many nodes are in play—in fact, the more nodes are added, the more pathways are established and the more resilient a network becomes. The nodes self-configure, meaning a utility can easily scale up to expand the network, or redeploy as needed. 

Each node serves as singular infrastructure, which enables everything within the network to be mobile: Wireless nodes can move, clients can move and network traffic can move, all in real time and without manual intervention. This can be useful to utilities that have mobile personnel and assets like trucks. They can simply place a node in a truck and it can act as an access point, allowing personnel to connect via mobile device to the central utility on a network that is highly secure. Nodes also can be placed on water towers, storage tanks, pump stations and more; any part of a water utility can be incorporated into the network.

The network’s level of security is military-grade, with end-to-end, 256-bit encryption. When encrypted information flows through the mesh and comes out another node, it stays encrypted all the way through, and is not decrypted until it is delivered to its final destination, ensuring privacy. At each hop in the network, kinetic mesh provides a per-hop authentication for each packet. This ensures that attackers cannot gain access to any of a water utility’s data or control systems. 

Case in Point

A Montana city has successfully deployed kinetic mesh in its municipal water department, allowing the water utility to better manage its water storage facilities, as well as sewer cleaning operations, and helping it keep its employees safe and productive. 

The city’s three drinking water storage reservoirs are located at higher elevations, each one higher than the first, and water flow is connected between all three. Before implementing kinetic mesh, the flow of water was manually controlled. The utility had to station operators at each reservoir and they would radio back and forth to report water levels as water flowed from the topmost reservoir to the bottom—even if they had to stand out in the harsh Montana winters to do it. This affected the health and safety of the operators due to the reservoirs’ remoteness. 

Now that the utility uses kinetic mesh to support operations, it has added sensors to the reservoirs that report levels in the storage facilities in real time, and it can remotely open and close valves to adjust as needed. Operators no longer have to face health and safety issues by braving the elements, and the network ensures that data is always up-to-the-minute and that communications never fail. 

Previously, for the utility’s sewer line cleaning operations, one high-level operator had to perform all cleaning because he was the only one trained on it. His other responsibilities had to be deferred so that sewers could be inspected and cleaned. After installing a kinetic mesh network, the water department now has the capability to partially perform the inspection and cleaning remotely. 

An assistant goes into the field and sets up the equipment for inspection and/or cleaning, then alerts the operator at the plant. The operator takes over remotely and is able to inspect and/or clean the pipe without going into the field. The operator then returns to his other duties, while the assistant takes down the equipment and drives the truck to the next task. 

In this case, the mobility and constancy of kinetic mesh facilitate a more efficient distribution of manpower as well as remote operations that can happen in real time, allowing the water department to be more effective.

ROI Possibilities

Municipal water utilities are fighting constant budget battles, and any time operators purchase a new technology or product, it is critical that it yields a high ROI. 

A kinetic mesh network can provide the following ROI to a water utility:

  • Man-hours can be saved because operators can access data and applications remotely, in real time, instead of having to physically travel to sites, giving operators time for more valuable tasks and preventing them from having to trek out in potentially dangerous conditions.
  • With real-time video monitoring and secure facilities via access control, security risks are reduced—and the network allows a utility to get full value out of the security systems in which it has invested.
  • Legacy equipment and systems like SCADA and AMR can be better leveraged when they are supported by a stronger communications network.
  • Real-time data based on personnel locations via access control aid in worker safety in the event of an emergency: First responders will know exactly who is where.
  • Field workers can have reliable Wi-Fi access even at the most remote substations and utility locations.

A water utility’s No. 1 responsibility is to provide enough clean drinking water to its population, and utilities are constantly adding more products and systems that help them achieve that goal. But all that technology is of no use without a powerful and reliable communications system. Using a wireless network like kinetic mesh can help utilities overcome challenges around reliability and bandwidth while also getting the most out of the other technologies in which they have invested, as well as help and protect their most important asset: their employees. 

About the Author

Todd Rigby

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