While much debate has centered on our eroding infrastructure, the focus has been on roads, bridges, and other highly visible assets. However, water and wastewater assets are also in dire need of attention. Indeed, many municipalities rely on pumps and valves built during or before the (Lyndon) Johnson administration and wooden or cast iron distribution pipes built during or before the (Andrew) Johnson administration.
In today’s budget-strained times, public utilities often must take the approach, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Funding for upgrades is never available until disaster strikes, at which point the coffers open to make a costly repair that averts a prolonged outage. This approach is getting more expensive to defend. Climate shifts are producing weather extremes ranging from intense heat to historic floods and tornadoes. Demand for water and wastewater treatment is on the rise from residential and business users. Both trends increase asset stress.
However, as any utility manager knows, replacing large swaths of infrastructure is cost-prohibitive. However, opportunities to deploy “intelligent” technologies that leverage the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) arise when system components are repaired or replaced. Placing sensors at key points in the distribution network to deliver real-time data to centralized analytics systems optimizes efficiency and identifies problems before they cause an outage.
Begin the IIoT journey by targeting low-hanging fruit: critical points that are readily accessible for instrumentation and where real-time data can deliver meaningful value.
For example, installing smart meters at delivery end points and smart sensors at pumping stations, then feeding that data to an analytics engine, provides a highly accurate picture of distribution, helping answer critical questions: Is all water being pumped arriving at homes and businesses? If not, you may have an undetected leak. Has someone tampered with a meter to avoid paying? Identifying these or other hidden problems in near real time enables rapid mitigation, limiting damage and minimizing lost product and revenue.
Water quality is another attractive application. Most utilities that send samples to a lab for testing don’t get results for a week or two. In the interim a critical water quality problem could go unchecked. Preemptively treating the water before results are available potentially leads to over-chlorination.
Identifying contaminants in real time offers obvious advantages in terms of public safety and reduced liability risk for the utility. It also gives employees information they can use to treat water and wastewater with greater precision, dramatically reducing additives use by ensuring the right amounts are deployed at the right times.
The IIoT helps utilities use energy more intelligently. Instead of running pumps at the same speed regardless of demand, flows can be monitored at different points and analyzed to optimize speed based on real-time demand. This reduces wear and tear on critical components in addition to using less electricity.
One of the IIoT’s most exciting applications is predictive maintenance. Real-time monitoring of performance parameters such as temperature and vibration can identify problems before a component breaks, enabling repair or replacement without interrupting service. The data also enables utility managers to base preventive maintenance on actual performance for each unit rather than generic guidelines, provide uninterrupted service without hiring more employees, and better prioritize capital projects.
Data Availability, Water Availability
Many municipalities require payback on initiatives like IIoT within three years to garner stakeholder support. Therefore, initial steps toward implementation should focus on deployments that deliver the greatest bang for the buck, such as leak detection. Once the value of these projects is demonstrated, gaining support for future projects will be easier.
As with all technology, prices will fall as adoption increases. In the meantime, it’s critical to ensure systems used for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data offer the highest levels of availability and fault-tolerance. Just as the community relies on your utility for continuous service, you need to have confidence that your IIoT infrastructure is designed to deliver uninterrupted access to critical data and analytics.
Moving from a reactive approach to proactive approach will deliver savings and improve the safety and availability of critical services. The IIoT has an important role to play in this shift. As with any journey, the first step is often the hardest. Taking that step now can pay real dividends down the road.