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Turning Tide on Water Utilities with Digital Transformation

Water utility management

Access to clean, safe drinking water is something most of us expect without thinking too much about it. We turn on the tap and it is there. But the mechanics of what happens under the sink, within the pipes, beneath the level of the street, is complex, antiquated, regulated—even politicized.

Much like the smart factory or Industry 4.0, water utilities need to undergo a digital transformation to ensure the safety and efficiency of their operations.

We talk to Dr. Alison Adams, Chief Technology Officer at INTERA, a geoscience and engineering company with a background in water resource problems, about the challenges facing an aging water utility infrastructure, the need for data analytics, and how digital transformation can lead to the sustainability and resiliency we expect from a system that provides such a crucial resource to us all.

What trends and challenges do you see in the water utility industry today?

The water utility industry has always dealt with risk—primarily because of the public health requirement for safe, high-quality drinking water. In this country, water supply is a 24/7 activity. Unlike electric grids, which can have brownouts and blackouts, a water utility system can never go offline.

But now there are the added challenges of climate change, significant economic swings, changes in water-use patterns, increasing water-quality concerns—all those types of concerns. The customer base has also become increasingly aware, and is asking a lot more questions, wanting more transparency from the utility industry.

So the water utility industry must figure out a way to become more responsive to these various crises and risks that they face on a day-to-day operational basis.

How well equipped is the infrastructure of the water utility system to handle these changes?

The actual infrastructure that moves water within the urban environment is very, very old—in some places it’s well over 100 years old. And so operating, maintaining, and upgrading those systems is very, very challenging. Much of our water utility infrastructure is buried in underground pipes—and so is also kind of out of sight, out of mind.

And this has caused the system to be slow in moving toward digital transformation concepts—employing sensors, employing methodologies to be able to view what’s going on underground. But it’s just very difficult to maintain things underground if you don’t have some sort of monitoring system in place.

Much like the smart factory or Industry 4.0, #water #utilities need to undergo a #DigitalTransformation to ensure the safety and efficiency of their operations. @INTERA_Inc via @insightdottech

An additional challenge for the water utility industry to adopt new technologies is the regulatory environment. Water utility industries are very much guided by what the regulations are—water-quality testing, water-quality monitoring, water supply-system monitoring—these are all pretty much driven by regulatory requirements. And regulatory agencies in this country are very, very slow to adopt innovative ways to move toward adaptive decision-making, adaptive management, predictive analysis, scenario planning—all of these types of tools that data analytics through digital transformation puts at your fingertips. Often, by the time you gather enough data for someone to decide, “Oh—looks like we’ve got a problem,” it’s very, very costly for the utility to then fix that problem.

Whereas if we had more capability to use predictive analytics or scenario planning through more data analysis and data information coming into the system, then at least utilities could adapt their management strategies to either avoid impacts or minimize impacts. And that would really help reduce a lot of the cost in mitigating or trying to fix problems that regulatory agencies would actually rather avoid.

What is the best way for water utilities to start the digital transformation journey?

I’ll be honest—with utilities, digital transformation is not an inexpensive proposition. At the very start of the process, it’s difficult to do cost/benefit analysis, because a lot of the benefits that a utility is going to gain at the beginning are difficult to cost. There are going to be savings in staff; there are going to be process savings—for example, bringing your organization together and getting rid of silos.

The next thing to do is assess what you have. Utilities are old organizations, and they’ve built different databases over time. They may have SCADA systems, which are Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition systems. They may have laboratory water-quality systems. They’ll have different databases for different types of data that were needed over time, and these things start to create their own little spaghetti databases. So a lot of digital transformation revolves around bringing all of that data—that is usually very scattered throughout an organization—into some central location so that everyone has access to it.

What type of data is available for water utilities? And how can they turn that data into actionable insights?

For decades, one of the utility’s primary tools has been a SCADA system. It’s great at collecting all types of data related to the operation of a utility—how much water is coming into your water treatment plant; what is the chemical dosing rate, depending upon the quality of that water; what is the quality of the water that you need to deliver to the customer? A lot of this is regulatory. Many utilities also have their own additional criteria for safe water that they want to monitor. Utilities end up with just an enormous amount of data.

And so developing good data analytics is important. Also having those data analytics actually completed at the site where the decision is most effective. For example, if you have a control valve, or you have a chemical-dosing regulator, and you have analytics at the edge—where that sensor is now also coupled with some data analytics as it brings information in—the analysis is performed, and then the decision can be updated and made right there on the fly. Those are some of the ways digital transformation can really transform the way a utility can respond to changing environmental conditions.

What types of tools and technologies can water utilities use in their digital transformation efforts?

One of the first things that many water utilities went for was automated meter reading for water distribution at the individual home, to gain a better understanding of what was happening for their end-use customers. Understanding end-use water needs really helps drive the overall planning and operation of a water utility.

A new piece of technology that is gaining a lot of traction in water utilities today is this notion of a digital twin—where you take your SCADA system or your control system, and you create a duplicate of it digitally. Now you can begin to take your hydraulic models—the models that help you better understand how water moves through pipe, the impacts of pressure and temperature and water quality on the water in the system—and you create this digital twin of your system. Then you can start playing what-if games. You can start making changes. If you have a sudden pressure drop in a certain area, what does that do to your overall system?

Before, it was very difficult to plan even infrastructure upgrades and improvements. You had to take a part of your system out of service. What was that going to do to the rest of the system? And a lot of times those decisions were made mostly on past experience. You would run some hydraulic models, but often those models were very limited. Sometimes you just hoped for the best and had a good recovery plan.

Replicating the hydraulics of your system and then really tweaking it, impacting it, and seeing what happens—seeing where your pressure points are, seeing where your failure points are—has really helped a lot of utilities’ insight, and improved the operation of their systems. It helps them understand where they need to focus their maintenance programs in terms of pipe replacements or pump replacements, or that sort of thing.

That’s where a lot of this is going. I’m also aware of some utilities starting to look more at artificial intelligence as part of their data analytics. Since there is so much data coming into the system, and AI is becoming more ubiquitous in the analytics world, it is kind of a natural transition to move in that direction, to take advantage of big data to really assess large systems.

How does INTERA help water utilities address regulatory concerns while still meeting their digital transformation and innovation goals?

INTERA is really focused on making better use of the data that many of its clients are collecting—taking that data and turning it into actionable information. So it’s not just gathering data and putting it in a database, but turning that into something that now you can act on. Whether you’re doing it to try to respond to a regulatory requirement, or whether you’re doing it just because it makes sense from a business perspective—it’s improving the efficiency of your operation; it’s improving the effectiveness.

How are you working with Intel® to help water utilities address some of these things?

Intel® brings access to technological innovation, and the opportunity to work with a global partner. Intel is also offering grant funding for us to conduct some pilot projects. We are deploying particular types of sensor solutions in the field to demonstrate to water utilities the benefits of some of these digital transformation activities as a proof of concept.

INTERA is working on the data analytics side, the database side, the display of this information to show how we can take that data and turn it into actionable information so that a utility can make decisions differently. And I think this is going to be very, very important going forward—the ability to do these demonstration projects for different utilities of different scales—because not all utilities have equal financial security.

Many utilities don’t have a lot of money coming into their systems to cover the cost of innovation. Most utilities are public entities, and rate setting is a very, very public process. It’s a very political process. Often you just simply don’t get to change the rates—they are what they are. This puts utilities very much at risk to move to innovation, or to do things in an innovative fashion that would probably save them money in the long run.

Can you talk about resiliency and sustainability, and how they fit into the digital transformation of water utilities?

Resiliency is the key to sustainability because resiliency represents the ability to deal with risk. We can’t plan for every risk that’s going to happen out there, but it is possible to develop ways to manage risk through resilient systems. And I think that’s really the key item that digital transformation offers for us. If we had sensors in the field, and data analytics, we could actually predict a flooding event caused by extreme rainfall. And if we are able to predict it, then we can develop mitigation and adaptation strategies to prevent it from becoming a disaster or a crisis.

Where do you think the industry is headed?

I think the industry must head in the direction of being more nimble and adaptive—particularly in terms of operational decision-making and handling changing environmental conditions. It has to be more efficient and effective with the use of all of its resources—its capital funding, its water supplies, and its people resources. And I believe the primary means of obtaining this future is through digital transformation.

Related Content

To learn more about water utility digital transformation efforts, listen to the podcast The Flow of Data in Water Utilities with INTERA. For the latest innovations from INTERA, follow it on Twitter at @INTERA_Inc and on LinkedIn at INTERA.

This article was edited by Kenton Williston, Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech.

About the Author

Christina Cardoza is the Senior Editor for insight.tech. Previously, she was the News Editor of the software development magazine SD Times and IT operations online publication ITOps Times. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stony Brook University, and has been writing about software development and technology throughout her entire career.

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