Guest Editorial: Smarter Solutions for Increasing Operational Efficiency

Oct. 23, 2015

Ongoing drought across water-stressed southern and western US regions has highlighted the risks facing many cities, communities, and industries as a result of dwindling water supplies. Water-shortage impacts have been particularly acute in California in recent years, where a historic drought has depleted groundwater and surface water resources, strained agriculture, and continues to threaten the state’s long-term water security. According to a new study from the University of California–Davis, California’s drought will cost the state $2.7 billion this year.

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In response to California’s multi-year shortage, Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year issued an executive order mandating residents and businesses statewide to cut water use by 25%, underscoring the significance of strategies and techno­logies that can work to cut water usage and conserve municipal supplies.

Credit: ACLARA

As an effective measure for enhancing the water efficiency of municipal water distribution systems, smart infrastructure technology is emerging as a valuable application, enabling for utilities to monitor systems, collect data automatically, and analyze information to optimize processes and control water use.

Smart infrastructure technologies—which incorporate a range of sensing, communications, and data analysis and management solutions—allow utilities to detect and pinpoint issues throughout the distribution network and at customers’ homes, leading to an improved understanding of where and how water is used, including where it is lost. By providing greater insight into a water utility distribution system, these tools provide the platform for the development of a smart infrastructure system.

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Armed with the intelligence supplied by a smart infrastructure system, utilities can better maintain their water distribution systems and realize more efficient water management. As an example, with customer-side leak detection, potential leaks inside of homes could be identified earlier. Likewise, with the ability to implement distribution-side leak detection, small underground leaks in water infrastructure could be located before becoming a major problem.

Data-Driven Analytics
In line with the simple concept that “you can’t fix what you can’t measure,” data collection represents the basis for a smart infrastructure system. Using advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) to capture data via automated meter reading technology, utilities have the opportunity to access consumption data for every meter on their networks. But while AMI technology can provide rich data, it is essentially a point-to-point solution: it reads a meter and collects meter data. A smart infrastructure system can do much more than that.

As a first basic step to the development of such a system, collecting and aggregating consumption data can provide the platform for analyses that allow utilities to make sounder decisions about how much water is put into a system and how much is taken out. But moving beyond that, data can be significantly more insightful and powerful when it is time-stamped. By doing so, utilities could view an entire system’s consumption at specific points in time, providing a much clearer picture on the true health of a system.

“Time-stamped reads are great for production, helping us come up with accurate water loss numbers,” says Josh Wedding, water system operator for Redmond, OR, which deploys an Aclara STAR network for AMI. “We use that monthly to do water loss audit. Our water loss annually is about 3.5%.”

Time-stamped reads also help keep costs down, according to Wedding. “Every gallon of water pumped that we don’t sell, we have to write off,” he says. “Time-stamped data helps us provide more cost-effective service to customers.”

To incorporate a smart infrastructure approach also means managing a water system from a more holistic standpoint. For example, if the pressure profile of an entire system is understood, utilities could manage their networks more effectively and make smarter distribution decisions.

Leak detection technology also plays a key role. While AMI can alert to non-revenue water loss, a leak detection system will pinpoint the exact location on a map. Even if a utility doesn’t have the resources to repair the leaks immediately, by knowing the pressure profile, re-routes could be conducted in the most advantageous way so as to minimize losses until a fix can be initiated.

In view of today’s challenges with drought, there is also a significant opportunity to merge smart water infrastructure with other systems—most notably graywater and wastewater systems. While traditionally, water and wastewater have been viewed as separate networks, water limitations are driving solutions that close the loop and merge these processes together. By extending data collection and data aggregation to wastewater operations, and pulling that information into a larger system, higher levels of water efficiency and water savings may potentially be achieved.

A Significant Opportunity for Adoption
Despite the tremendous benefits afforded by the incorporation of smart infrastructure technologies related to water conservation, more streamlined operations, and enhanced system efficiency, most municipalities in California and across the nation—some 75–80% of the market—still do not have an AMI or similar fixed-network system in place. Moreover, approximately half of all water utilities in the US do not employ basic water metering.

With such low market inclusion of these systems—and considering that the US Geological Survey estimates that the volume of water lost through distribution systems is on the order of 1.7 trillion gallons per year at a national cost of $2.6 billion—substantial opportunity exists for utilities to minimize water loses and conserve supplies through smart infrastructure system adoption.

Smart infrastructure can help droughtaffected
regions slash overall water usage.

Start With AMI
For leak detection in residential homes, AMI systems can deliver comprehensive usage data through a secure, long-range wireless network. Data collected, at minimum, on an hourly basis is assembled into a report, allowing utilities to identify customers who may have leaks inside their homes. Many utilities make these reports available online, so it is easy for customers to monitor their own water usage.

By collecting water use data every hour, utilities are more able to determine the potential for a leak. Since most people generally don’t use water every hour, water consumption occurring 24 hours a day at a home provides a good indication of an unintended leak—such as a leaky toilet, an outside spigot left on, and several other scenarios.

These reports also enable utilities to identify abnormal patterns and take proactive measures against potential problems. For example, a house averaging 50 gallons of water use per day that suddenly jumps to 250 gallons could be flagged for notification. In some cases, this type of use is intended, such as a pool being filled, but if this use is unintended, such as a burst irrigation line, a significant amount of water could potentially be saved by contacting the homeowner.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is one of the largest water utilities in California. It relies on its two-way fixed network from Aclara to collect hourly data from the city’s 180,000 meters using Aclara’s two-way fixed network. This data feeds a system developed by the utility that lets customers track usage online. An Aclara-generated report also allows SFPUC to identify customers who may have leaks inside of their home.

Heather Pohl, automated water meter program manager for SFPUC, said the Aclara report informs the utility which accounts have exhibited continuous usage every hour over a three-day reporting period each week. “We filter that report for single-family homes and analyze it to identify the minimum usage for each account,” she said. “This process allows us to gauge the severity of the suspected leak.”

Postcard notifications are sent to customers who show up on the report, alerting them of a possible leak. The SFPUC also monitors the reports to find out if those customers have dropped off the list, assuming they may have responded to the notification and fixed the leak. Future enhancements to the report may benefit commercial customers and those owning multifamily residences such as apartment buildings.

Finding Distribution Problems
The challenge of finding underground leaks is one of the thorniest facing water utilities. These leaks cause most of the water loss for utilities, but are usually “silent” problems that only get noticed when water surfaces.

Technology with acoustic sensors placed at various locations in the distribution system can help utilities identify leaks before they surface. Acoustic leak-detection systems reduce non-revenue water losses by developing critical water distribution system knowledge automatically and with minimum operator involvement. By automating the collection, retrieval, and analysis of acoustic data gathered throughout the water system, utilities can pinpoint underground leaks.

Systems such as Aclara’s STAR ZoneScan deploy highly-sensitive acoustic data loggers at regular intervals on valves throughout the water-distribution network and record vibrations in the quiet early hours when factors such as traffic that affect leak noise are minimized. The STAR ZoneScan system transmits recorded sounds to the utility via the AMI network where, through acoustic correlation, the data is automatically analyzed to identify potential leak locations.

Correlated, acoustic leak detection allows utilities to pinpoint underground leaks to within approximately three feet. The Aclara system is deployed in a number of East Coast communities such as Sylacauga, AL, which uses the tool to find underground leaks that occur on hundreds of miles of galvanized service lines and cast-iron pipes.

“This type of pipe, some of which was installed as early as 1906, is more likely than others to leak because of corrosion,” said Mike McGinnis, superintendent of water in Sylacauga. “In a half-mile radius we might find six leaks. Every place we have installed the system we have found leaks that we can repair.”

The Aclara STAR ZoneScan system was one of the tools that helped Syla­cauga reduce its non-revenue water losses from about 34–23%.

Easily Deployable
Contrary to the general perception that implementation of smart infrastructure technology involves a time-consuming process with delayed benefits, Aclara’s smart infrastructure solutions are flexible, easily-installed, and do not require extensive custom-specific engineering prior to operation. By realizing a fast time to full automation, utilities can quickly begin identifying potential leaks at customer properties and within its distribution network, leading to increased water use control and improved water efficiency.

With the availability of today’s smart infrastructure solutions, including advanced metering infrastructure and leak detection technologies, utilities have a powerful tool for conserving water supplies, preventing unwanted water losses, and better helping communities address the challenges associated with drought and higher occurrences of water stress.
About the Author

Todd Stocker

Todd Stocker is the director of water and gas product management with Aclara.

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