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Real-Time Operational Intelligence & Aging Water Infrastructure


A large portion of the pipes, pumps, valves and other water infrastructure operating in the U.S. today dates back to the 1940s or earlier. With water systems crumbling, the U.S. loses about seven billion gallons of treated water per year through water main breaks and leaking pipes, at a time when almost a third of the nation’s cities are expected to experience a water scarcity crisis in the next few years.

Water main breaks can cost utilities millions annually and threaten public health and property. For years, however, water professionals have lived with this reality because, as the Water Innovations Alliance estimates, replacing the existing water infrastructure would cost almost $400 billion nationally.

The solution is straightforward: optimize the operation of the existing infrastructure with instrumentation, controls and software technology that have been developed since the infrastructure was first installed. Information from these solutions provides a greater understanding of the system and facilitates better decision making for replacement and/or rehabilitation of equipment and infrastructure when optimization limitations and analysis justify it.

The Current Solution—Business as Usual 
The solution many water operations have adopted is largely based on a business-as-usual approach. Without intelligent instrumentation, control and software components in use to systematically analyze and identify potential problems such as operational and capacity deficiencies, utilities are choosing to replace pumps, valves and other infrastructure by using only basic criteria such as age and material alone (regardless of whether it needs to be replaced).

More often than not, an older asset will need to be replaced before a newer one, but that is not always the case.  Approaching these complex and expensive problems in an uninformed manner means continual operational inefficiencies and ineffective use of already scarce funding resources afforded to managers.

However, many water officials are apprehensive to invest in a more advanced system because they perceive it as complex, expensive and risky.  The reality is that by integrating system instrumentation and controls with intelligent connected software, water operators can ensure consistent, efficient and accountable operations while lowering costs, increasing regulatory compliance and enhancing future capital infrastructure planning.

Instrumentation paired with software and real-time operational intelligence can unlock value in data for operators.

Optimizing with Instrumentation, Controls and Software 
Even the oldest water infrastructure can be operationally enhanced with the strategic installation of instrumentation, controls and software to monitor key system performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs provide a better understanding of the system as a whole and allow for better decision making.

In a sewer collection system, for instance, an operator may need to manage a large number of pumping stations, but not be able to fully understand, optimize or diagnose operational problems without real-time and historized data that these assets could provide if they were equipped with integrated instrumentation, controls and software to analyze and optimize operations. Older equipment may not have the same inherent ability to automatically provide the type of information that newer, more advanced equipment has, but they can often be retro-fitted to provide much of it without having to be replaced.

By optimizing existing infrastructure, the life of an asset can often be extended for a few thousand dollars, as opposed to spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to replace it because it has only met an age, runtime or material criteria threshold. Real-time KPIs can give water operators essential components of data that can tell them:

  • The stations that are not pumping at capacity
  • The pumps that are drawing more power than needed
  • The areas of the system that may have low chlorine residual

Over time, historical asset information combined with current data can indicate that an asset has reached the end of its useful service life, saving the utility continual repair and maintenance costs. It can also be used to prioritize critical asset replacement to achieve optimal system performance and reliability.

Real-Time Operational Intelligence 
If operational information from every pumping station in a system is simply being recorded into a historian or database, operators will be overloaded with data and may not realize when it indicates a possible catastrophic asset failure.  Speaking the language of assets by having them produce simple data elements that are translated into relevant KPIs from terabytes of data is a critical step. The goal is to also shift the operational culture from one of forensic analysis of what happened after the fact, to one of being informed of impending asset, system or process failure before it happens in real time.

With a software solution in place that offers mobile, real-time operational intelligence (RtOI), managers and operators can know which assets are performing within specification or which ones need attention at any moment. This information is available from any location using a smart device such as an Apple® iPad®, based on relevant KPIs mined from potentially terabytes of tabularized data.

A field operator armed with this type of information could then be immediately dispatched to solve the problem based on the equipment’s geo-location. This is especially helpful in the event of an emergency to address an issue quickly—or even before it happens—rather than after significant damage to the equipment and/or property has been done.

The operator will not only know which asset needs immediate attention, but will also receive the alerts and notifications necessary to understand which component has malfunctioned upon arrival. This capability allows operators to be proactive, instead of reactive, with their operations.

Today, the reason associated with anything that goes wrong is primarily a function of the assets’ age, material and operational condition. The strategic integration of instrumentation, controls and software allows managers and operators to monitor operations through the lens of Real-time Operational Intelligence.

In turn, by using powerful KPIs displayed on a simple, secure app built for consumer devices, managers are able to optimize operations of existing systems and assets. They can also prioritize equipment replacement based on intelligent metrics, instead of age, runtime, material or other basic criteria.

Terry Biederman

About Terry Biederman

With over 25 years of design and operation experience in the municipal water and wastewater industry, Terry knows first-hand the challenges facing today’s water and wastewater facilities. He helps customer drive more efficiency, consistency and accountability in their operations through state-of-the-art software and control technologies available in today’s connected world. Reach out to Terry on LinkedIn and Google+

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