Leveraging technology to streamline lift station operations

May 18, 2010
[Case study - May 2010] Jack Morin operates 16 lift stations for East Richland County in South Carolina. That means he has a great deal of data from his pumps to collect and act upon, regulations to meet, man-hours to allocate, maintenance to schedule and perform and a budget that constrains him in his duties...

• East Richland County, SC, applies advanced remote monitoring to 13 pump stations

[Case study - May 2010] Jack Morin operates 16 lift stations for East Richland County in South Carolina. That means he has a great deal of data from his pumps to collect and act upon, regulations to meet, man-hours to allocate, maintenance to schedule and perform and, possibly most importantly, a budget that constrains him in his duties. Morin isn't alone in his plight -- water utility managers and operators all across North America are facing the same challenges and budget shortfalls.

East Richland County, like many small- to mid-sized utility districts has leveraged technology to aid in the operation of its lift stations. But the affordable alarm dialer it employed wasn't delivering significant value beyond notifying operators of high wet well events. While a SCADA system could deliver the functionality and benefits East Richland County needed, it was considered a budget-buster and was ruled out due to its high cost.

Morin ultimately found an elegantly simple and economical solution: advanced remote monitoring through Aquavx. Advanced remote monitoring offers the functionality of SCADA at the cost of an autodialer.

Problem -- Finding the Intersection of Benefit and Affordability
East Richland had a handful of old land line based alarm dialers, but was spending a lot of manpower sending personnel out to check the stations every day. This system didn't provide any qualitative information about the stations that enabled operators to anticipate problems or adequately troubleshoot before sending maintenance personnel to the site.

"In addition to economizing manpower, the county wanted to be able to generate various reports from their stations -- and wanted these reports to be customized to meet the county's unique information requirements," said Mike Osborne of AO Inc., the consulting and installing company for East Richland County.

Ideally, East Richland County would have looked to SCADA for its functionality -- but the cost of a full SCADA system was out of the question. SCADA provides most, if not all, of the information water municipalities need to optimize operations. With remote data access and control capabilities, the same information gathered from physical site visits can be achieved through SCADA from behind a desk on a computer.

By getting data remotely with a SCADA system, operators can prioritize where resources are needed most. Personnel can focus on visiting equipment that needs attention, while leaving alone the sites that are operating normally. The result is increased efficiency and lower costs. Automation enables utilities to remotely monitor and control tanks and wells or virtually any other digital, analog or modbus device or sensor. For lift stations, notification of high wet-well alarms can prevent spills and costly EPA fines, and aggregation of the data can make it easier to perform regulatory filings and reports, as well as aid with planning for the future needs of the system.

Unfortunately, the costs and investments associated with SCADA are prohibitively high -- and for small- to mid-sized municipalities, the costs of SCADA may outweigh the benefits. Most of the time, these expenses come out of a utilities capital budget. The primary capital expenditures include the build-out of a private radio network, software licenses for the polling server and HMI, and consulting services to make the software useable for a specific application. Additionally, the completed application may be rigid and difficult to change without again hiring consultants to make modifications and upgrades.

Solution -- Saving Money without Sacrificing Functionality
Morin and AO Inc. determined that East Richland County would employ Aquavx, an advanced remote monitoring solution, to gain SCADA functionality at roughly the same monthly cost as the existing auto-dialer phone lines and at a fraction of the initial capital expenditure.

"The benefits we're getting from advanced remote monitoring at about the same monthly cost as phone line easily make up for any upfront expenditures," said Morin. "With Aquavx, we have so much more than the simple alarm-dialers we were using. Now, right at our fingertips, we have information we can use to streamline our pump operations before sending someone to the site."

Advanced remote monitoring offers 90 percent of the SCADA analytical capabilities at a fraction of the cost. At the heart of advanced remote monitoring for water utilities is the methodology known as Software as a Service (SaaS), delivering technology over the Internet and integrating IT with existing systems. The solution avoids investments in expensive communications networks associated with traditional SCADA.

East Richland County's advanced remote monitoring software is hosted remotely on Aquavx's servers, so there's no software to install. The utility's assets are only as far away as the nearest Internet connection, and the utility always has access to the latest software version and benefits from enhancements made to the service with no additional cost. Pricing is based on the number of units, with access available to anyone at no additional charge. This is an additional cost-savings over SCADA, where each person or machine accessing the system must have a software license. And finally, the Aquavx hardware systems at the pumps are elegantly simple -- they are easy to access, use and upgrade.

"One of the reasons we selected this advanced remote monitoring system was the user interface in the on-site hardware," said Morin. "We can access the information from the system at the pump or back at the control center -- or anywhere I have an Internet connection."

In addition to the essential notification of alarm-events, advanced remote monitoring generates custom reports for evaluating the performance of East Richland County's pump stations. The unit interpolates wet well levels and includes pump run cycles/times to provide a station inflow/outflow report for daily and long-term snapshots. The system's ability to graph readings and trends adds to the data's ease of interpretability.

"Wet well reports are extremely useful for maintenance planning, troubleshooting and long-term operational planning," said Osborne. "Just this feature alone saves many man-hours of data that are collected and processed into reports, which are now available with a mouse click."

Additionally, the reports provided by advanced remote monitoring provide the necessary data to evaluate a response after a alarm is received and can conserve man-hours previously spent investigating a minor event. Even more importantly, these alarms enable a quick response to a potentially significant problem.

"We've had stations that we suspected had a problem with inflow," said Morin. "Now with Aquavx I apply the historical inflow reports to the station, diagnose the problem, and see that after it rains there's a spike. I can tell a lot about my entire system -- you can put all of the charts together to get a picture of the system as a whole -- I can see where and when the problems exist. That helps me learn how to solve them."

"Bang for the Buck"
For East Richland County, a SCADA system would have offered attractive functionality, but was too expensive and complicated for many of its needs. Until it installed advanced remote monitoring with Aquavx, the county's autodialers were effective -- but now it can get significantly more functionality at a significantly lower cost than would have been possible with SCADA.

"We're definitely getting bang for our buck," said Morin. That "bang" comes from the functionality and reporting normally only found in a SCADA system, but more importantly, the solution was delivered within a tight budget -- something that couldn't have been accomplished with SCADA.