Smart Water Systems in a Pandemic

Aug. 6, 2020

This article originally appeared in WWD June 2020 issue as "Smart Systems in a Pandemic" 

About the author:

Bob Crossen is senior managing editor for WWD. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

During times of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, it pays off to have a strong crisis management and resiliency plan.

When that plan requires social distancing or reduced face-to-face interaction, a backbone of smart technologies such as cloud-based SCADA and remote monitoring can ease the transition into crisis management mode.

“It allows for virtual control rooms, all sorts of analytics that you can do that someone can monitor from home,” said George Hawkins, president and CEO of Moonshot Missions, a smart water technologies company. “I mean, it’s almost as if the suite of solutions that are available were tailor made for just this sort of crisis.”

The swell of smart water technology developments in the past three to five years were designed with convenience and efficiency in mind. If an alarm goes off on the weekend, those with the proper credentials and authority on the system can receive alerts on their phone to address the issues remotely without interrupting weekend plans or time with family at home.

Those same devices now are effective at keeping workers separated from each other to reduce the spread of the coronavirus throughout society. In an emergency, barriers change.

Smart Water Adoption & Barriers for Implementation

Albert Cho, vice president and general manager of advanced infrastructure analytics for Xylem, said he expects utilities to reprioritize investments due to the coronavirus.

“I think there will be a significant shift towards integrating digital into nearer term investment plans,” Cho said. “I think the two biggest barriers are going to be — given the financial hit many utilities will take in the next year — is just figuring out how to reallocate priorities quickly in a world of just leaner O&M capital spending. And the second piece, I think is a continued challenge in the sector...which is procurement,” Cho said.

According to WWD’s own market research, staffing and scheduling was among the most affected aspects of utilities due to COVID-19, and Cho said smart technologies can be particularly useful for teams with limited staff and resources.

“What remote and intelligent technologies can help utilities do in this difficult moment is deal with the reality of limited bandwidth,” Cho said. “We call it asset visibility, the ability to translate the physical processes that happen in any facility into a digital representation.”

What Cho references is often called a digital twin, in which a digital near one-to-one representation of the system is developed. These digital twins can allow utilities to adjust aspects of the system in a digital space without making changes to the physical aspects of the plant. In this way, the digital twin can provide modeling for outcomes based on inputs provided by the operator, and it does not risk system integrity of operations to conduct those experiments.

“To be able to view that from a distance makes it safer for everybody to be able to engage with the reality of what’s happening in the system without people needing to be physically next to each other,”
Cho added.

Additionally, with lower bandwidth, artificial intelligence and machine learning gain even more effectiveness. Machines can spot anomalies and deal with them without operator intervention, leaving the operations team to focus on bigger projects that machines cannot do.

Steps to Implementation

While financing these technologies is a barrier, Hawkins noted that the investment can have lasting and long term effects. They are effective at solving the problems that have arisen during the crisis, but those features and functions remain when the pandemic has come to an end.

“What’s hard for a utility is to make a big decision about a full-scale implementation all at once,” Hawkins said.

The first step toward adopting smart water technologies is to determine what areas of a facility could benefit the most from more data, inclusion of sensors and analytics. Once that has been determined, Hawkins said a pilot test is a good next step. The risk of installing the system is mitigated with the temporary pilot, which will provide the facility with real world outcomes.

“We’re not necessarily making the permanent long term decision at the moment. We’re just trying to make sure our system will operate under these extraordinary circumstances,” Hawkins said of utilities taking this time to try these systems out.

Cho said the coronavirus has only compounded other reasons and factors behind the adoption of these systems.

“People have been looking at an aging workforce where a lot of expertise is set to leave the sector over the course of the next decade,” Cho said. “Deferred maintenance requires quite a lot of reactive work, and also the concern of financial resilience is particularly exacerbated now when some utilities are seeing quite severe contractions in revenue given some of the social distancing measures and their impacts in their communities.”

Hawkins agreed in regards to the aging workforce and the imminent wave of retirements that has been termed the “Silver Tsunami.” While the term may suggest one large crash of the wave, Hawkins said it is more like a creep and a crawl. Over the course of a couple years, a handful of people could retire and leave a system with limited or no access to the legacy knowledge that kept the system functioning for the past three to four decades, in some cases.

Cost & Perceived Risk

“That’s the unstoppable force. The immovable object is going to be cost,” Hawkins said, noting this will not be the last crisis that utilities in the U.S. will face. 

Hurricane season and wet weather storm flows have been excessively difficult for some areas and drought has had considerable impacts in others. These smart systems, especially when paired with artificial intelligence or machine learning for weather forecasting, flow predictions and flow control, are effective all year, he added.

This global pandemic has escalated the rate of innovation in the smart systems space as well as it has “shifted the balance of perceived risk from inaction to action,” according to Cho. Prior to the coronavirus, he said, most saw these systems as important to the future, but that they may be too risky to invest in. In emergencies, however, barriers change. 


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April 26, 2018