Water Industry Must Prepare for New Millenium

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Much has been written and said about the coming of the new millenium. Certainly, its impact will pervade through all aspects of our society and affect how we as humans operate individually and corporately. But the impact may also affect our vital companion - the computer - during this ballyhooed time.

Smith & Loveless Inc., a water and wastewater treatment and pumping equipment supplier, has been looking into the potential problem of the Year 2000 and its effect on computerized operation systems used in municipal water and wastewater plants.

In the past 5 to 10 years, there has been an increase in the use of computer systems in the water and wastewater industry. In the pump station market, we have seen inclusion of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) in place of conventional control systems. Also, many water utilities and wastewater plants have automated their operation with central computerized monitoring systems. These computer systems have aided municipalities in recording problems while dramatically reducing operation, maintenance and power costs.

The key problem concerning the impending millennial change is whether or not the PLC or computerized monitoring system contains what is referred to as a "real-time clock" function. A real-time clock function is an embedded device within the software or hardware of the computer system that records actual time and date. Its the real-time clock function that enables the PLC to precisely activate the treatment systems blowers on specific days. The problem is that many computer monitoring systems and PLCs contain data fields that record only the last two digits of a given year instead of the complete 4-digit date. In the year 2000, a real-time clock functioning with a two-digit data field may treat the "00" data as the year 1900 and not 2000, causing possible system malfunctions.

Most telemetry systems contain some type of real-time clock. These monitoring systems, which have been in use since the 1970s and increasingly within the wastewater industry in the past 10 years, alert operators about equipment malfunctions or breakdowns. They also record and transmit data from remote locations. As we approach the year 2000, the real-time clocks on these systems have the potential to present a problem for operators.

It is important that municipalities take steps to avoid those problems. First, locate and make a list of all computerized equipment. Be sure to include all PLCs and telemetry equipment. When making the list, be sure to record the model and serial number for reference. Second, try to determine if the computerized equipment has a real-time clock. Does the function of the equipment require knowledge of the specific day and year? Third, contact the appropriate vendor of the equipment. Generally, vendor information can be found in the Operation & Maintenance manual. When contacting the vendor, be sure to have the model and serial number available. That will greatly assist the vendor in providing the correct information on the potential of the millennial problem.

It is difficult to determine the effect the year 2000 might have. In some cases there may be no effect, in other cases it could be very disruptive to the operation of water, wastewater and pumping systems.

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