No one understands the poor state of the water and wastewater infrastructure in many U.S. cities and municipalities better than public works professionals. Due to tight budgets and a lack of broad public recognition of the problem, needed improvements have been deferred for years or even decades in some cases.
The problem isn’t limited to prominent public cases such as in Flint, Michigan. Studies have revealed water losses between source and destination as high as 46 percent. Losses of this magnitude are clearly unsustainable over the long term. Yet a “rip and replace” of the existing water and wastewater systems is not feasible, promised federal infrastructure investments notwithstanding.
How can cities and towns protect the quality and availability of their public water and wastewater systems within their budget and resource constraints? Increased use of data analytics and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies are playing a key role in answering this question—a role that will only grow in scope and importance.
The use of data in managing water and wastewater systems is nothing new. Public works professionals have long relied on test data from water samples and other manually collected metrics to monitor their product and the efficiency of their distribution systems. But this data is limited and retrospective; results only provide a snapshot of what was happening in a particular moment in the past. And the data is rarely analyzed in aggregate, missing the opportunity to identify subtle trends that could provide early warning of developing problems.
A New Paradigm
The IIoT changes this paradigm. Installing sensors at critical control points linked to data aggregation and analytics systems enables continuous monitoring, measurement and analysis of a wide range of parameters—from water quality to flow rates to equipment performance—delivering insights in near real time. The advantages are significant.
Consider the water loss problem. By placing sensors at key distribution points to monitor and analyze flow data, operators can accurately pinpoint problem areas and target their scarce resources only on those sections requiring repair or upgrades. If a new leak develops, operators can be alerted to the flow problem in seconds, allowing faster response to minimize loss and the risk of an outage. Just as significant, analyzing data from across the water or wastewater infrastructure over time provides insights that help municipalities make more informed long-term capital planning decisions.
IIoT can transform the management of water and wastewater systems. But it also increases the need to protect the data. Ensuring continuous, uninterrupted data availability is a critical success factor for tapping the full potential of real-time analytics for high-value applications, such as the following:
Safety and Compliance
Real-time, continuous monitoring and analytics give public works professionals the ability to identify and respond to quality issues proactively, protecting public safety. This data also provides a rich historical record to support compliance documentation. Any interruption in the flow of this data, however, could lead to operational hiccups that might affect supply, pressure or other critical performance issues. If data is lost, this gap could lead to a regulatory compliance violation, resulting in a fine.
Continuous monitoring and analytics take asset performance management (APM) to new heights.
Instead of waiting until pumps or valves fail, sensors gather data on vibration and other subtle performance variations and feed it into analytics engines, detecting early signs of problems, thereby avoiding surprises. With lead time on replacements often stretching to weeks, knowing in advance when a piece of equipment requires overhaul or is nearing end-of-life is crucial to avoiding a process interruption.
Analytics also provide insights that enable municipalities to repair or replace only what actually needs to be replaced, optimizing use of financial resources. Any interruption in this data flow, however, could effectively “blind” operators to the condition of key components, leading to an unpleasant surprise.
Remote monitoring allows fewer people to monitor many more assets, resulting in labor savings that can quickly show a return on investment for these projects. This is key, especially as older employees begin to retire and finding qualified talent to replace them can be challenging.
In addition, the ability to monitor systems using devices that people already have—such as smartphones and tablets—saves municipalities from purchasing dedicated devices for remote monitoring. Uninterrupted remote availability is paramount in these settings, as it ensures that systems can be continuously monitored even with a lack of on-site staff.
An exciting example of the possibilities presented by the IIoT is the potential to integrate weather data, including temperature and precipitation trends, into plant management analytics. This can provide predictive insights to dramatically improve water allocation and wastewater processing. These insights enable a more proactive approach to declaring or lifting bans on watering or filling pools, or agricultural water distribution. Improving conservation efforts enables municipalities to avoid costly expansions of capacity. Uninterrupted data makes it possible.
Laying the Groundwork
As more public works professionals recognize how real-time data analytics delivers value in real-world applications, more municipalities will take their first tentative steps on the IIoT journey. Certainly, developments like the Smart City Initiative are encouraging urban centers to adopt new, intelligent monitoring and automation technologies to improve both the efficiency and safety of public services. As data analytics become more mainstream in public works, these capabilities will eventually migrate down to mid-size and even smaller communities.
As public works and municipal leaders plan their IIoT road map, it is important to make the right investments now to ensure the greatest payback. Investing in data systems that provide the high availability required for continuous monitoring and analytics is critical.
Equally important is making sure any new data infrastructure is simple to operate and serviceable, given the limited IT resources typical to many public works departments. The right decisions today will position public works departments to reap the full benefits of the “intelligent” water and wastewater systems just around the corner.