Inside the Internet of Things

April 2, 2018

When you think of the Internet of Things movement, or IoT for short, you might think of a refrigerator that tells its users when a bottle of milk is getting old. Or maybe you picture an alarm clock that not only wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. but also tells your coffee maker to start brewing your favorite cup of joe.

The IoT movement has great potential to change our lives. Simply put, IoT refers to devices at work or at home that are all connected to the Internet and that all then talk to each other and share data.

The home version of the IoT movement sounds like fun. A sensor in your car can tell the lights in your home’s living room to switch on minutes before you pull into your driveway.

But what about in the workplace? And what about for water utilities? Does the IoT movement have a place in water delivery?

A Suez employee installing new water meter in a customer’s home in Teaneck, NJ, June 15, 2016. The new meters use satellite and cell technology to automatically send readings to Suez.

Rich Henning, senior vice president of communications at Paramus, NJ-based SUEZ North America, says it certainly does. And he should know. SUEZ owns and operates its own municipal utilities serving about 2.5 million people in the states of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Idaho. SUEZ also works with water utilities throughout the country, providing them with maintenance services and, thanks to a new partnership with Aclara announced January 16, AMI and sensor-monitoring technologies.

Henning, then, says that the IoT movement and the smart sensors that can talk to each other and to utility operators are already playing a role in boosting the efficiency of water delivery at utilities across the country. And in the future? This technology will be one that more utility managers will eventually consider a necessity, Henning says.

“A wider scale adoption of IoT is closer than ever,” says Henning. “The possibilities are limitless.”

Sensors are the key to the IoT movement, at least for water utilities. Smart sensors that can connect to the Internet and then share data about how much water utilities are pumping through their systems, how much pressure they are using at different sections, and how active valves, pumps, and filters are, can make a big difference in how utilities deliver water.

How can IoT sensors help utilities? These sensors can monitor possible leaks in a system, sending alerts to utilities when the water being pumped through a section of the utility differs from the amount of water reaching customers. IoT sensors can also help utilities better monitor the quality of the water they are delivering, more accurately measure how much water their end-users are consuming, and monitor the health of their infrastructure.

In short, high-tech sensors that talk to each other, collect data from throughout a water system, and relay that information to operators can boost the overall efficiency of water utilities.

Sensors provide a multitude of data points, all of which can be used to optimize operations.

Henning points to Bayonne, NJ, as a good example of how smart meters and AMI, today’s versions of the IoT movement, can immediately help a utility.

Bayonne has about 60,000 people. Its water utility has about 12,000 hook-ups metered throughout its system, Henning says. Within the first couple of years of taking over the Bayonne water utility, SUEZ decided it was time to modernize the system with AMI and new smart meters. SUEZ replaced all 12,000 of the utility’s meters with newer, more accurate, and definitely smarter, meters.

The new meters revealed some surprising data: A huge number of end-users had water leaks on their own properties. Thanks to this information, SUEZ was able to send 2,000 letters to customers notifying them of water loss in their homes, Henning says.

“To us, that was an amazing finding,” says Henning. “So many customers had no idea they had water leaks on their own properties.”

In a two-year timeframe, water consumption throughout the utility decreased by 7 percent, Henning says. That was thanks, in large part, to customers fixing the leaks in their own homes.

And this is just one example of how IoT and the sensors that make the movement possible can make a difference for water utilities.

John Parks, director of new business development at Tallassee, AL-based Neptune Technology Group, says that water utilities are playing an important role today in the smart cities and IoT movement. Water meters that come with solid-state encoders or solid-state measuring technology are why.

Parks says that these meters can sense low flows to help utilities identify possible residential or commercial water leaks. Armed with this flow information, utility workers can contact their customers—whether that’s through a phone call, text, or email, or through an online customer portal—to report that they might have a leak that is costing them money. Customers can then take action to repair the leaks.

This not only saves customers money in the long run, it can also boost a utility’s efforts to conserve water, Parks says. This kind of smart meter technology can also save utilities both labor and future maintenance costs as they won’t have to send utility repair workers out to as many locations to react to customers complaining about higher water bills.

“Limiting truck rolls to meet with customers on water usage complaints saves utilities time and money,” says Parks.

And that’s just the beginning of the potential these smart meters and sensors have. Parks says that software and reports can identify water use where there should be none. Once utility workers discover these anomalies, they can take steps to shut off the inappropriate use, saving them money.

Sensors can even give utilities clues about when people are tampering with meters to steal water or when users aren’t complying with odd-even irrigation schedules and other conservation initiatives. Once utilities discover improper usage, they can take steps to end it.

Sensors and meters can also help utilities avoid potentially big problems. Parks says that reverse-flow detection and subsequent alarms by water meters can help utilities spot a main break quickly. Repair personnel can then fix the break before it causes too much costly damage.

Reverse-flow detection can also help protect the quality of drinking water, Parks says. That, of course, is critical; the main job of a utility, after all, is to deliver clean, quality drinking water to its customers.

Neptune and other manufacturers also offer utilities a host of additional IoT water sensors that can help them deliver water more efficiently and with less cost.

Parks says that pressure sensors are especially important tools. These help utilities manage the pressure throughout their water delivery systems. Utilities can use these sensors to monitor peaks and lows in pressure across a system and chart the timing of these fluctuations.

By tracking pressure anomalies, utilities can avoid expensive problems—and damage to their infrastructure—in the future.

“Proper pressure regulation and balancing can reduce main breaks, saving time and resources, and promoting public safety,” says Parks.

When utilities maintain proper pressure at the end-runs of a system, they are providing protection against the intrusion of any contaminants that could get into water lines. This, again, boosts the safety of their drinking water.

Acoustic leak sensors are another key IoT tool for muni­cipal water utilities. Parks says that these devices, when placed on water mains, can alert utilities to water leaks before they get too large. With the information provided by these sensors, utilities can prevent sinkholes, ruptures, breaks and other public safety concerns.

If utilities can fix these leaks before they grow too large, they can then avoid the high cost of repairing damaged streets and sidewalks.

Finally, Parks says that utilities can install combined sewer overflow and sanitary sewer overflow sensors in critical areas of their water systems to identify and alert utilities to potential sewer breaches or infrastructure concerns.

Parks says that these sensors can help utilities meet federal and state regulations and save cities millions of dollars in fines or penalties.

The IoT facilitates digital leak detection.

Hemet, CA-based McCrometer manufacturers a variety of smart meters—meters that share information with water system operators—that municipalities use in water treatment plants, pump stations, wells, and distribution systems.

The meters provide these municipalities with key data. Barry Spiegel, director of sales with municipal markets for McCrometer, says that utilities can use them to measure the amount of flow moving through a pipe or rely on meters to generate more accurate bills. Utilities might turn to these meters when they are selling water to another town or selling it to commercial or residential users to make sure they are charging accurately for the amount of water they are providing.

Others rely on meters to help them spot possible water leaks more quickly, Spiegel says.

These data are important and could lead to significant cost savings for municipalities. For instance, an accurate meter could help utilities discover if contractors are stealing water from their system. Meters installed in wells can help municipalities track the water they are pulling from them. Their state might forbid these municipalities from drawing too much water from a well on a specific day. With accurate meters, utilities can make sure they don’t run afoul of these regulations, Spiegel says.

Smart meters and IoT technology, then, help utilities operate more efficiently, Spiegel says.

“You want to know how much water is coming out of a well and how much is going into a storage tank,” says Spiegel. “What comes in and what goes out should be equal. If it’s not, then there’s a problem at that location. Pump stations are very similar. You are moving water from one location to another. Measuring the water flow might not be as critical as it is in a well situation, but it is still important to the operation of a utility.”

Spiegel isn’t alone in his support of the type of smart city technology that the IoT movement can make possible.

There’s Mark Moreau, for instance. Moreau is a big believer in the power of the cloud and in the potential of the IoT movement. This isn’t a surprise, considering that Moreau is the chief executive officer of Utility Cloud, an operations management software provider based in Windham, NH. Utility Cloud provides a single platform that utilities and municipalities can use to manage their operations and maintain their facilities across different divisions.

It makes sense, then, that Moreau would see the cloud, intelligent sensors, and IoT as the future of water delivery. Utility Cloud already gives utility managers the platform they need to gather information from throughout their delivery systems.

“We give our clients the ability to gather data from various sources,” says Moreau. “Whether it’s human beings doing rounds to an IoT device that has data that our clients can use. We handle both extremes.”

Moreau says that advances in technology have paved the way for the rise of sensors and IoT technology. He points to 3G and 4G broadband cellular network technology as making the entire movement possible.

“There are some pretty low-cost devices already out there that allow traditional sensors or electrical sensors with a local display to connect to the cloud through an electrical interface that is designed to communicate over cellular,” says Moreau. “You have Raspberry Pi-type operating systems embedded on incredibly cheap chips. The technology is changing dramatically. Having parts of water systems communicating with each other is no longer far-fetched.”

The cloud, intelligent sensors, and the IoT are the future of water deliver.

Spiegel says that demand for McCrometer’s meters is on the rise from utilities. This is largely because utilities today are so interested in tackling water loss. Utilities turn to meters and other sensors to make sure that the water they are pumping through their systems is equal to the amount they are delivering to their end users.

Meters and sensors can help utilities identify those areas of their distribution systems in which the largest amounts of water are disappearing.

“‘Water loss’ is the buzzword in the industry these days,” says Spiegel. “It’s all about water loss, whether in the distribution system, in a plant, or at home. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is concerned about losing water.”

Different parts of the country, of course, are more focused on lost water. In the South and in the West, drought conditions have made water a valuable resource. Utilities there don’t want to lose this water to leaks. In the northeastern part of the country, droughts aren’t an issue. But utilities there are concerned about water loss, too.

Why? As Spiegel says, utilities are often cursed with aging infrastructure. Leaks, then, aren’t uncommon. Even if drought conditions aren’t an issue, every drop of water that is lost is a drop that utilities can’t sell.

“In a large city, the private water companies are all about revenue,” says Spiegel. “They are all about making sure that treated water is sellable, not wasted. They are concerned about that.”

With all these benefits, are more utilities embracing sensors and the IoT movement to generate more data and help in managing their water systems?

Yes…and no.

Parks says that a growing number of utilities are moving to high-resolution water measurement systems, such as those with low-flow sensitivity and eight-digit resolution. Many are also installing AMI systems so that they can access more data about how their systems are performing.

Other utilities are also installing sensors to help with acoustic leak, pressure monitoring, and sewer overflow and sanitary sewer overflow monitoring. But Parks says that there aren’t quite as many utilities turning to sensors as there will be soon.

“This seems to be more of an emerging trend,” he says. “Obviously, these sensors require AMI to be effective. AMI, advances in water management software, data analytics, and the Smart Cities IoT trend have elevated smart water network sensor solutions like these, so the adoption level and trend will continue to increase.”

And the IoT movement? Parks says that he sees most of the discussion around smart cities and IoT being held at the city staff level, with mayors, chief intelligence officers, and other high-ranking officials focusing on how this technology can help their municipalities run more efficiently.

Parks says, though, that he expects the IoT discussions to steadily filter down to all city departments, including water.

“The bottom line is, water utilities that have already embraced high-resolution meter technology and AMI have essentially been involved in the IoT play even before the term was coined,” says Parks. “More and more water utilities are adopting distribution system sensor technologies to increase efficiency and help them provide safe drinking water to their customers.”

Parks says that today there are already more than 500 sensor applications available to water utilities. These applications provide service, diagnostic, or operational data across a LoRaWAN. You might not know what a LoRaWAN is, but what’s important to know is that it is a type of protocol for what are known as wide-area networks (that’s the WAN part). The network is designed to allow low-powered devices to communicate with Internet-connected applications over long-range wireless connections.

These networks, then, are becoming more important for municipalities that are seeking evermore data from their infrastructure and equipment, including those making up their water delivery systems.

“The IoT movement will help water utilities move forward with AMI and a range of sensor applications beyond meter reading that will help them more efficiently manage their resources to deliver safe and consistent water quality at consistent pressure to their customer base,” says Parks.

Spiegel says that he is convinced that the IoT movement will come to utilities in even greater force in the near future, with more devices throughout water delivery systems talking to each other and sharing data.

This is already happening to some degree, Spiegel says. But as time moves on, and as more devices gain the ability to share data, the IoT trend will only grow. And armed with reams of new data, utility managers and analysts will be able to deliver water more efficiently while reducing the amount of water wasted throughout their systems.

“I am convinced that this will be a bigger trend,” says Spiegel. “Obviously, it is an evolution. There is an evolution going on now. When I started in this business, we wrote everything on a piece of paper. Then we started using spreadsheets. Then came computers. Next came data management. Now we are moving everything to the cloud. You see it with AMR, whether drive-by AMR or someone sitting in an office somewhere collecting data. Utilities can automatically download the water data from various neighborhoods. No doubt, everyone is going to the Internet and to the cloud.”

Could the movement toward IoT tech move faster? Sure, but Spiegel says that municipalities are making strides in sharing consumption and pressure data throughout their systems, relying on sensors placed at valves, pumps, and filters to determine exactly how much water they are pumping and how much is making it to their consumers.

Spiegel says that manufacturers of sensors and meters often argue that municipalities are too slow to adopt new technology. But Spiegel says that as the workforce at municipalities and utilities gets younger, this is changing. Today’s newer utility managers and workers are far less nervous about new technology, whether it’s advanced meters, pressure-measuring sensors, or devices that electronically communicate with each other.

“The municipal water business has a problem: It has an aging workforce,” says Spiegel. “We all know there’s an aging infrastructure out there. But there is an aging workforce, too. The new people coming in are the ones who are going to push for this new technology. They grew up with computers and devices. If we don’t have this kind of technology for them, they’re not going to work in our industry. The new blood is helping to drive the tech changes we are seeing. The new workers are waking up some of these municipalities.”

Utilities won’t be able to attract the top workers if they can’t offer these workers the latest in technology. And that includes both high-tech sensors and IoT capabilities, Spiegel says.

“You want to hire new people, you have to keep up with the times as far as equipment and technology goes,” says Spiegel. “I think the bigger water systems recognize that. Private companies recognize that. There are still a tremendous amount of rural communities, though, operating their own water districts. Their time will come. IoT is definitely a movement.”

Moreau points to the comfort level that IT departments and other municipal officials are gaining with using the cloud as one big factor in pushing forward the adoption of smart sensors and IoT capabilities. He says that a growing number of wastewater treatment plants are now storing data on everything from water quality to pressure levels to energy consumption in the cloud.

At the same time, there is more software available now to connect water plants, and entire water systems, to the cloud securely, Moreau says.

“That had been a big hurdle during the last 10 years,” he says. “The tech came on first, but now the security levels are better. The IT departments have more knowledge and comfort with the use of the cloud and their ability to protect that data.”

And this is a big deal, he says. Water utilities can become far more efficient if they rely more on data and automation and less on humans.

“We can gain incredible efficiency gains by limiting the human being,” says Moreau. “The whole concept is to take data at its source where it is generated and bring it through the organization without having someone—a human—transcribe the information. When you get that human element in this process, that’s where mistakes are most likely to happen.”

This doesn’t mean that utilities will become completely automated. There are, and will be, plenty of jobs for which humans are essential.

Moreau points to conservation efforts. If utility workers are focused less on monitoring data, they can focus their efforts instead on promoting water conservation among their end-users. Workers might also spend more time maintaining their water systems’ aging infrastructures, a task that is becoming more important with each year.

“Traditionally, over the last 20 years we haven’t been able to do proper stewardship of preventative maintenance on our infrastructure,” says Moreau. “As we free up people from regulatory and compliance activity, we can turn them toward preventative maintenance. That could make a significant positive impact on our water systems.”

Moreau suggests a back-to-basics approach that sensors and IoT technology can help utilities achieve. If automated systems are managing data, people can spend more time interpreting what that data means.

“The human brain is still important,” says Moreau. “It’s kind of a nice side benefit to the whole thing. The technology we are developing is about freeing up staff to get back to the basics of what they should be doing.”

About the Author

Dan Rafter

Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.