Avoiding component failure and increasing cybersecurity.
by John Fryer
September 17, 2018

At the top of the priority list for water and wastewater treatment professionals is the need to increase the efficiency and reliability of pumping systems. Reducing energy consumption is a critical focus for both municipal and commercial operations. This is driving the continuing movement away from single speed pumps and the adoption of variable speed pumps that can satisfy flow requirements while using significantly less energy. While they offer attractive advantages, variable speed pumps are more sensitive and require more monitoring.

Operators also face expanding regulations governing water quality and effluent safety. In some cases, continuous monitoring is required to ensure regulations are met.

Finally, there is the challenge of the aging workforce responsible for operating complex water distribution and wastewater treatment infrastructures. As those workers retire and younger, less experienced workers take their places—and as staffing budgets are constrained—the need to rely less on human intervention is becoming critical.

Enter the Intelligent Edge

To meet these challenges, water and wastewater system operators are turning to Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies, including distributed sensors and edge computing. Edge systems provide the computing necessary to perform monitoring and control of sensitive pumping systems that need to run constantly, often in remote locations.

Gathering and analyzing data from a host of sensors on critical pumping components in real time, edge computing systems can perform a wide range of high-value applications. If critical performance parameters, such as temperature or vibration, are found to be out of range by the edge system in that location, the pump could be automatically shut down, with the system sending an instantaneous alert back to the central control facility.

Even more valuable is the ability to continuously gather data on pump performance and use analytics to determine when periodic maintenance is required. “Predictive maintenance” analysis can reduce unplanned downtime and extend the lifespan of costly pumps and components. This is valuable where sensitive variable speed pumps are deployed.

Further Possibilities

Given the flexibility of edge computing, the possibilities for optimizing operations is limitless. Chemical treatment of water or wastewater can be automated to analyze the chemical makeup of water or effluent in real time, minimizing the need for human intervention while maintaining optimal quality. Leak detection is another example. Edge systems can continuously analyze flow data and quickly pinpoint problem areas. Edge computing can also help at source locations and distribution points, wherever data can be gathered, analyzed and acted upon to reduce energy use and human interaction and maximize efficiency.

Evolution, Not Revolution

The first step in implementing the intelligent edge in the real world of water and wastewater operations is to start small. The second step is to clearly understand the objective and how success is defined. Then, start with a limited pilot program with clear objectives. For example, an edge system might be deployed at a remote pumping station to collect sensor data over a period of time and perform simple analytics on pump performance. Periodically, a technician could visit the site and connect to the edge system using a tablet or mobile phone and review pump performance—without the complexity or expense of sending the data up to the cloud for analysis.

When it is time to scale up, this pilot approach can be replicated at key locations as budget realities permit. This enables the ability to localize computing without having to invest in a lot of costly infrastructure. Ultimately, this can evolve into a “hybrid cloud” approach where local edge systems perform immediate monitoring and control functions, sending data relevant to longer-term planning up to the cloud for deeper historical analysis.

Keep it Simple & Reliable

When embarking on the edge computing journey, it is critical to deploy systems that are specifically designed for the task. Because internet technology (IT) skill sets are often in short supply in water or wastewater operations, edge systems must be simple to deploy and easy to maintain, including support for remote system management and servicing. It is also essential that edge systems be fault-tolerant to ensure continuous availability, and self-protecting to ensure valuable data is never lost.

Making the Case for the Intelligent Edge

The business case for IIoT and edge computing is already well established in commercial process industries. In the oil and gas industry, edge systems are used to monitor far-flung pipeline pumping and compressor stations. In the food and beverage industry, edge computing is playing a variety of roles, including real-time quality monitoring on the production line and in product traceability, accelerating the tracing of raw material source in the event of contamination. For water and wastewater system operators, an incremental approach to edge computing that targets key points of potential efficiency gains and/or component failure is ideal.