Water Industry Works to Overcome Millennium Bug

As the nation and world work to solve the Year 2000 computer date problem, the water and wastewater industry is an area of major concern. Entrepreneurs feeding on "Millennium Bug" paranoia are hawking water purification and storage systems to people worried that their water supply might fail next New Years day.

As the nation and world work to solve the Year 2000 computer date problem, the water and wastewater industry is an area of major concern. Entrepreneurs feeding on "Millennium Bug" paranoia are hawking water purification and storage systems to people worried that their water supply might fail next New Years day.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, industry associations and interest groups are working to ensure that Y2K computer problem will not shut down the nations drinking water and wastewater treatment systems.

The "Millennium Bug" is expected to arrive on January 1, 2000, when millions of computers around the world will attempt to process date-specific information where the year is listed only as "00". Simple date calculations frequently involve subtracting one date from another. Many computers and embedded computer chips are programmed to recognize or record only the last two digits of a given year instead of the complete four digit date.

For that reason, computers could end up with "negative" dates (which they dont recognize) or with wrong dates (if they interpret "00" as 1900 instead of 2000.) Some computers and equipment will crash; others may simply stop and need to be restarted; corrupt data and operations errors may also infect plant operation systems and administrative networks.

Affected systems

Y2K problems in drinking water and wastewater treatment systems can occur in computers, computer software, and in systems that use computerized controls. Much attention has already been focused on finding and fixing those problems because they are the most obvious.

Affected systems

A less apparent yet potentially serious problem could be caused by equipment with embedded computer chips. Many of these chips are time and date sensitive, relying on real-time clocks to perform their functions. Embedded chips can be either single- or multi-purpose computerized devices. Literally millions of the chips are embedded deep within equipment or control systems used in drinking water and wastewater treatment processes.

Affected systems

A real-time clock function is used for operations that are date or time specific. It can be programmed into any device, computer hardware or software package to record, store, or transmit actual time, day, and date. Real-time clocks might be found in processes or actions that must occur on a specific day of the week, or operations that must be repeated on a set cycle such as every other day or just weekends but not weekdays.

Affected systems

Examples of these processes in drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are: starting and stopping aeration blowers and pump motors; filling storage tanks; cycling of heating and ventilation systems; and monitoring equipment.

Action steps

To combat the Y2K problem, EPA has worked with industry officials and other government agencies to develop a six-step approach adapted specifically for drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. Because of the differences in individual treatment systems, plant managers will need to tailor the approach to their systems.

Action steps

The six-step approach includes suggested completion dates. Utilities that want to insure their systems are ready by January 1, 2000, should be treated those dates as "no later than" dates. Sooner is better than later, particularly if new software, hardware or consulting services are needed.

Step 1. Awareness (Complete As Soon As Possible)

While most people in the United States are aware that a Year 2000 computer problem exists, many have not focused on what impact the problem might have upon them personally. Also, many are not aware of problems that could be caused by embedded computer chips

Step 1. Awareness (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Utilities should promote awareness across their entire organization and all levels of leadership, including operating staff, supervisors, upper managers, and corporate or public officials. EPA has published an awareness Fact Sheet focusing on Y2K and drinking water and wastewater utilities which is available on the EPA Y2K web site at www.epa.gov/year2000/ow.htm or by writing to the U.S. EPA, Office of Water (4204), 401 M Street, SW, Washington, DC 20460.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

In the assessment stage utilities must perform an inventory of all their computer systems, communications, and electrical equipment and determine what problems exist where, and what potential impact those problems will have. This is the most crucial and perhaps the most difficult stage.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Locating all of a facilitys computers and embedded chips with real-time clocks can be difficult. Things that look like a computer are easy to find but control equipment, including Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and equipment with embedded chips can be almost anywhere. Some problems may not be readily apparent, but may cause system failure.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Every circuit board is suspect, but priority should be given to systems that ask for a date after a power failure, or have a back-up power source. Most newer systems use PLCs in place of conventional control systems. As the name implies, PLCs have a visual display or transmit data to a remote display terminal. These controllers can be programmed or reprogrammed by the operator. Older systems, however, may contain embedded timing devices that have no visual display of the real-time clock function, nor any means to see if a real-time clock function was installed at the factory.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Most computerized control systems and telemetering systems also contain some type of real-time clock function. These monitoring systems alert the operator about equipment problems, breakdowns and malfunctions. They also record and transmit data from remote locations showing the exact date and time of the problem.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Even chips without real-time clock functions may have been programmed with default values. In the event of a Year 2000 failure, these chips may malfunction or revert to the default value. These devices are often found in systems such as power, security, heating and ventilation, telephones, elevators, monitoring, and process controls.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Locate and inventory all computerized equipment. Record all model and serial numbers for reference. Generally this information can be found in the manufacturers catalog or the Plant Operations and Maintenance Manual or contact the appropriate equipment supplier for assistance. Make sure to include all PLCs and embedded chips in process controls, laboratory equipment, automated data processing, and telemetering systems.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

There are also embedded chips containing unused date functions. However, the date counter advances over time from an uncertain start date, at an unknown rate of advance. There is the potential for a system effect from these chips hitting on one of the typical Y2K date strings.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Determine the existence of real-time clock functions in embedded computer chips. If this is not readily apparent, contact the manufacturer or supplier of each embedded chip in writing, ask if their system is Year 2000 compliant, how they evaluated compliance, and if they will provide a certification. Each manufacturer or supplier may have a different standard for Year 2000 compliance; ask for their definition of compliance.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Information is available on manufacturers web sites and there are centralized Y2K compliance databases that are subscription based. These methods may prove to be quicker and easier than making inquiries directly to each manufacturer. Analyze risk and impacts of failure when problems are found. The seriousness and impact of the problem should be weighed to help determine the best course of action. Based on the seriousness of the impact, the decision could be to take no action, to repair, or to replace.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Water and wastewater utilities should also be aware that services outside their control will be at risk for Y2K problems. These may include power, telecommunications and transportation systems, and chemical and equipment suppliers.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Utility officials should meet with power company managers, telecommunications utility managers, and chemical and equipment suppliers to understand risks involved and to ensure that they have included drinking water and wastewater systems in their contingency plans. Just as important, the external service suppliers should be familiar with the contingency plans of the drinking water and wastewater systems.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

According to representatives from the American Public Power Association (APPA) and the Edison Electric Institute, power companies are "cautiously optimistic" about year 2000 readiness. Surveys of the industry are incomplete, but power companies generally are far along in preparing for the date change. Like water systems, power companies have the ability to operate in manual mode when circumstances require.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Power industry representatives are encouraging water suppliers to visit with their local electricity providers to discuss where water suppliers fit into their contingency plans. One power industry staffer suggested that water systems were not necessarily at the top of the priority list for restoration of power following a year 2000-related failure.

Step 2. Assessment (Complete As Soon As Possible)

Since water and wastewater systems are linked, they also should be aware of each others vulnerabilities as well.

Step 3. Correction (Complete by 06/30/1999)

After assessing a system, corrective actions must be taken. These may include:

  • Prioritization of system conversion and replacement, and establishment of a schedule. This should be based on risk, potential liability of failure, time needed to repair, and any other pertinent factors.
  • Modification, repair or replacement of the system or components identified as potential problems.
  • Engagement of consulting firms and computer specialists, if necessary, to assist in making corrections.

Step 4. Testing/Validation (Complete by 07/31/1999)

Conducting tests of updated or repaired systems could cause plant failures, so facility owners and operators should take steps to prevent failure or plan to mitigate any adverse impacts from a failure. All testing plans, procedures and results should be thoroughly documented for internal Y2K contingency planning

Step 5. Implementation (Complete by 09/30/1999)

During implementation, utilities should put their repaired systems back into full operation having adjusted for issues found during assessment, correction, testing and validation. This also means having contingency plans available and ready to operate. Other important steps in implementation include:

  • Customer notification and communication of a utilitys Year 2000 readiness. Bill stuffers, newspaper ads, and radio commercials are some ways to reach both business and residential customers.
  • Establishment of a "customer hotline" or an Internet site. This will make it easier for customers to get information upon request. Customer service representatives should be familiar with the Year 2000 issue and be able to answer questions or direct calls to the appropriate staff.
  • Documentation of all internal and external efforts to achieve Year 2000 compliance. If everything has been documented and a treatment system experiences problems in spite of compliance efforts, a baseline will exist for analyzing and "debugging" the system.
  • Back-up contract services. Make sure all contracts are in place, all vendors and suppliers have been notified and all necessary chemicals and materials are on hand.
  • Notify local emergency management organizations of contingency plans and Year 2000 readiness.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

Even though every effort is taken to prepare for the Y2K problem, utilities should develop contingency plans to deal with any unforeseen problems. Most drinking water and wastewater treatment plants have contingency plans for operating during natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes which could be adapted for the Year 2000 problem.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

In particular, the plans should address internal failures and the failure of service and supply chains external to the facility.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

Since the Year 2000 begins on a Saturday, additional operating personnel should be available to handle any problems that might occur at the plant or in the collection or distribution systems. Staff should be armed with two-way radios in case the telephone systems go down. Additional customer service staff might also be called in to handle inquiries and complaints.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

Owners and operators should check with contractors, vendors and utility suppliers to ensure that they are Year 2000 compliant and that power, gas, telecommunications service, chemicals and other supplies will be delivered as scheduled. All contracts and maintenance agreements should be checked to identify vendor or contractor responsibilities and warranties for Year 2000 compliance.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

Be sure all new contracts and agreements require Year 2000 compliance certification. Insurance coverage should be evaluated against business interruptions, claims regarding environmental damage and consequential damages from Year 2000 compliance failures.

Step 6. Contingency Plans (draft by 06/30/1999; Finalize by 09/30/1999

Editors Note:
This article was adapted from material prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys Office of Water. EPA has developed an Internet site specifically addressing the Y2K and how it relates to the water and wastewater industry. Visit the site at: http://www.epa.gov/year2000/ow.htm

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