Digitizing Utilities

Jan. 17, 2019

How smart water technologies can equip utilities to address aging infrastructure & the retiring workforce

About the author:

Hassan Ali is senior vice president of engineering and IT for Mueller Water Products. Ali can be reached at [email protected].

U.S. water infrastructure is rated D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and according to the American Water Works Assn., 240,000 main breaks are wasting 8 billion cu meters of water in the U.S. every year, costing about $35 per connection. A Utah State University study found that the water main break rate has increased by 27% since 2012. This, combined with utilities facing headwind from a retiring workforce, are top priorities facing water utilities. 

Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, augmented reality, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) are giving utilities awareness and control over their operations and insights into detecting problems early. Progressive utilities are using these technologies to solve aging infrastructure and workforce, rising operational costs, and water quality and security issues.

A Forward Leap

Digital models of water distribution systems reduce operational costs by making it easier for utilities to find issues and address them. Digital technologies are making headway in water utilities in these three areas:

1. Leak Detection. Digital utilities are combining IoT with acoustic sensors to find and address water main breaks before they cause major problems. By adding IoT devices to traditional infrastructure such as hydrants and valves, water utilities can monitor pipes for leaks every minute of every day. By finding water main leaks early, utilities can monitor and address the issue before a pipe break occurs. Without the use of digital technologies, leaks can go undetected for months before a catastrophic pipe break, which results in a higher cost to repair, loss of treated water, property damage and customer service interruption.

2. Pressure Management. Utilities are adopting digital pressure management to extend the life of aging pipes. Pressure sensors, combined with software analytics, can give utilities new insight to reduce system pressure when water consumption is low. The latest generation of pressure sensors also can detect transient pressure events and identify problems at the source. Pressure management reduces non-revenue water loss and increases the life expectancy of the water pipes. These new capabilities give utilities options to manage aging water infrastructure and improve customer service. 

3. Smart Metering. Advanced metering technology enables continuous two-way communication between the network and metering devices, enabling accurate measurement and collection of detailed usage and billing information, demand-response capabilities, customer alerts and notifications, remote service connections and disconnections and more. Smart meter deployments cut utility costs in all these areas that have previously required personnel to go into the field. 

Digital Models

To address issues of an aging workforce, utilities are relying on digital models of their infrastructure to capture “tribal knowledge”. GIS mapping software helps utilities create digital models of their water distribution systems. Utilities can use these models to determine which valves need to close to isolate a section of a main to fix a break. Staff can quickly isolate underground leaks, respond faster to main breaks and prioritize capital improvement spending based on GIS data.  As water technicians prepare to operate or repair equipment, augmented reality can present them with a digital model of the equipment with easy-to-use directions. 

Utilities also are exploring the use of machine learning and AI to unlock the insights hidden in their data. Some utilities are using water main break history to train machine learning algorithms to predict the condition of the pipe. Others are analyzing years of videos of their water mains to identify problems.

Thanks to IoT and data analytics, it now is economically possible to add sensors anywhere in the distribution system to gain real-time knowledge about the operational state of the water infrastructure. For example, pressure sensors help utilities create improved hydraulic models to better manage water distribution. Analytics also can help utilities identify water aging and water quality issues. By combining water consumption data through smart meters and pressure data using IoT-enabled pressure sensors, utilities can manage pressure to reduce real losses.

Where to Start Implementation

Most of these technologies are available as a service, which makes it economically feasible for a utility of any size to migrate to digital when needed and within budget. It is best to start with the most urgent issue. For example, if a utility has lost key personnel and is having difficulty gaining efficiency using the newer staff, creating digital models of its system is a good place to start. If a utility wants to address non-revenue water loss, then smart metering and acoustic monitoring of their water mains to detect leaks is the best place to start.

The focus should be on the problems that are worth solving. Locating and implementing a solution on a small area or issue to prove the benefits, and then scaling up is a good approach. This will significantly decrease the time for utilities to start gaining the true value from any technology.

With so many companies delivering different portions of the digital solution, it is important to ensure you have an open standards-based solution. This means that any solution utilities implement must be able to share data or interoperate with other solutions from various companies. For example, if you implement IoT-based water quality sensors, those sensors should send data in such a way that multiple software solutions from different vendors can consume that data. Traditionally this has been difficult to accomplish due to the lack of open standards like LoRA. However, IoT has brought the internet standards approach to water utilities. 

Water utilities are focused on delivering safe drinking water to consumers, which is an essential and worthy mission. Dedicated and experienced utility professionals now are looking at these digital capabilities seriously and are assessing how to best leverage new technologies in support of their missions. As always, utilities will continue to adopt newer technologies cautiously as their applicability and benefits are proven. 

Digital technologies will provide water utilities with economical tools to gain more understanding about their water infrastructure. This will increase proactive management of water infrastructure with timely maintenance and repair. This digital wave is a powerful way to solve the problems facing water utilities such as aging infrastructure, a retiring workforce, increased operational costs, and water quality and security. 

Acoustic Leak Monitoring Discovers Pipe Breaks

In late October, the water loss control project manager for New Jersey American Water (NJAW), Ron Oppenheimer, received a notification alert that the utility’s EchoShore-DX acoustic leak detection nodes had identified a possible leak. The Echologics Leak Operations Center (LOC) reported the potential leak, located approximately 1,400 ft from the node. The LOC had monitored the leak for persistence, and NJAW created a work order and deployed field personnel to confirm and pinpoint the leak.   The site was a residential street in Chatham Township, located in northern New Jersey.

Watch a video about this project: New Jersey American Water Accoustic Leak Detection Case Study

Upon arrival of the field resources, there was no visual indication of the presence of a leak. Based upon acoustic confirmation and after 3 ft of excavation, a pool of water was found bubbling up.  A storm sewer pipe that ran adjacent to the water main was damaged and had inadvertently been draining the majority of the potable water from the leaking main. Once the excavator reached the water main, a spray of pressurized water shot 20 ft into the air. The leak was from a full circumferential break in the pipe.

The most likely cause for this main break was recent road resurfacing combined with rocky soil conditions. The pipe, which was originally installed about 70 years prior, was laid on bedrock, and roadwork compactors could have compromised the main during paving.  With both pipes damaged, this leak could have gone unnoticed for months, if not years. A water main repair clamp was used to fix the leak with no shutdown or loss of supply to customers. The damaged sewer pipe also was repaired, all with a minimal impact to the road.

NJAW has more than 4,500 permanent leak detection monitors spread across multiple water systems, and additional deployments are planned in the next three years. 

“Echologics’ leak detection technology has allowed us to schedule repairs and improve our customer experience,” said Russell G. Titus, senior superintendent for NJAW. “Our pilot deployment of nodes in 2016 saved us approximately 1.7 million gal per day of water and reduced operating expenses by $1.9 million in less than two years of operation. In targeted areas, permanent acoustic monitoring is a very effective way to minimize leakage in our water systems.”

About the Author

Hassan Ali

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