The Set Up for Digital Twin Success for Utilities

Oct. 3, 2022
Not all digital twins are created equal.

The City of Columbus, Ohio has two interconnected treatment plants, and a chemically enhanced primary system for wet weather treatment.

It is a complex network, with multiple gates in the collection system. When the city’s department of public utilities was shaping new control strategies to help reduce sewer overflows and optimize its assets, it deployed a wastewater network optimization solution.

The system calibrates data from various sources across the network to offer precision guidance on when wet weather treatment facilities should be used. This allows operators to balance flows between the plants and get necessary teams ready to report as needed. The result is improved coordination and insight across the entire sewer system. The solution is now a vital tool in the city's management of sewer overflows.

In Tennessee, Nashville Metro Water Services operates a complex water distribution system including more than 3,000 miles of water mains, two 90 million gallons per day (mgd) water treatment plants and 56 water pumping stations. When the utility implemented a water network optimization solution, it found that water age at a particular tank was significantly higher than expected, and was climbing over time. Armed with this insight, the utility decided to reduce the tank fill lower limit by 3 feet to stabilize and reduce the water age. Due to this enhanced level of visibility, the water network optimization solution confirmed that once the lower-level limit was enabled, the water age decreased. 

In Europe, when a major wastewater utility was facing cavitation issues at one of its treated sewage water pumping stations, an asset optimization solution was deployed. The solution was used to integrate data sets from across the utility’s assets and systems, to define acceptable operating parameters for the pumps. The utility can now accurately predict and prevent pump failures. Unplanned service visits to the site have been eliminated and overall system efficiency is improved, resulting in significant OPEX and CAPEX savings.

These utilities have solved complex challenges and unlocked powerful benefits. But there’s another common denominator: digital twin technology coupled with advanced data science and water system expertise.

The 4 Benefit Levels of Digital Twin

A digital twin is the assimilation of data and an operational model that helps operators understand how a physical asset, process or system should be performing, and helps to provide insights and predict performance under changing conditions. Digital twins can deliver benefits at four levels.

1. Visibility

In its most basic form, a digital twin shows operators what is happening within an asset, process or system in the present moment. This application allows the operator to take action based on visibility of current operations.

2. Scenarios

At this level, the digital twin is capable of processing variables to predict an outcome, but it still requires the operator to manually optimize the asset, process or system at their choice.

3. Recommendations

In more advanced applications, the digital twin generates multiple scenarios and provides operational recommendations to achieve set KPIs. The operator then chooses a course of action based on these recommendations. A good example of this is GPS.

4. Control

When combined with decision support systems and water expertise, the digital twin has the potential to deliver autonomous, optimized control. This leads to greater reliability and continuity in operations. When running in automatic mode, the system has the ability to react quicker to events, while continuously learning and adjusting. This delivers more decision-making power to operations to re-analyse and tune the system going forward. The utility is in continuous improvement mode, constantly optimizing for better outcomes. Think self-driving car.

Ultimately, the digital twin is an enabling technology – not a solution – and its potential is realized through how the data is applied.

From Data Deluge to Decision Intelligence

In sophisticated applications like those deployed by the city of Columbus, Nashville Metro Water Services and by the wastewater utility in Europe, digital twin technology is coupled with hydroinformatics and water system expertise to create a powerful decision support system.

Hydroinformatics engineers help utilities sift through data by designing algorithms and interfaces that deliver the most useful data to the operator in the right way, at the right time. These multidisciplinary experts combine hydraulic modeling skills, engineering, and an in-depth understanding of the water cycle to tackle age-old water problems in new ways. The output is real-time operational recommendations through a real-time decision support system, and off-line recommendations pertaining to assets and planning initiatives.

This holistic approach enables utilities to seamlessly integrate digital twins within their digital ecosystem for transformative results.


By using past data and automatically ‘calibrating’ to better represent the infrastructure, the digital twin enables continuous, real-time optimization and highly accurate predictions to improve the efficiency and resilience of an asset, process, or system.

Minimize Downtime

Operators are empowered with decision intelligence to quickly detect and diagnose operational anomalies and trigger proactive maintenance or asset replacement.

Address Workforce Challenges

Rather than starting from scratch, data from the digital twin helps new operators pick up where their predecessors left off, driving incremental improvements if turnover in workforce happens.

Supporting the Integration of Assets

For example, delivering insight on how an underperforming pump impacts a collection network and what strategy is needed to compensate in the short term and enable optimal operational conditions.

Setting up for success

Whether at the asset, process or system level, utilities can unlock results quickly by putting their digital twin to work in the right way. While every utility is different, and each digital journey is unique, there are some common steps that have empowered forward thinking utilities to chart a course for success.

  • Collaboration: Ongoing consultation between utility leadership and operations teams to identify areas where additional data could inform more efficient operational or planning decisions. Utilities can establish a baseline by assessing what real-time data is available, if and how it is being used to make improvements.
  • Feasibility Studies: Evaluating how a digital twin can add value in the utility’s unique context through a small initial project. This is a straightforward, low-cost route to determine the challenges, opportunities and potential return on investment.
  • Smart prioritization: Prioritizing projects appropriate to the utility’s unique requirements – whether optimizing a single asset or process or deploying the digital twin at a system-wide level.

As water utilities modernize their infrastructure with digital solutions and analytics, digital twin technology can be a catalyst for progress. Already, utilities around the world are showing us what’s possible.