Declare Checkmate on Water Loss

June 10, 2021
Just like in chess, a winning NRW strategy takes proactive execution and the ability to think two steps ahead. A smart utility network is helping curb water loss in Walla Walla, Washington.

Solving the challenge of non-revenue water (NRW) can feel like playing a game of chess for utilities facing aging infrastructure. They must work to gain control over water loss while thinking two steps ahead to avoid vulnerabilities down the road. It all comes down to anticipation and execution.

Some utilities use technology to their advantage for greater system visibility. The right data can help water providers pinpoint acute issues like leaks or spills and target future needs. This ensures staff will be there to address both the near and long-term needs of customers.

The path to meeting current and future water management objectives starts with surveying the entire board and then developing the right game plan. The City of Walla Walla, Wash., used a smart utility network to address NRW, improve customer service and make operational strides.

Water Challenges in Wine Country

Wine might get better with age, but the same isn’t true for water metering infrastructure. In Washington’s acclaimed grape-growing region, Walla Walla was losing more than 30 percent of its NRW due to failing equipment. The city’s utility team decided enough was enough; it was time for a major technology upgrade.

“We’re one of the oldest towns in the state so, water loss and aging infrastructure are complex issues that are linked,” said City of Walla Walla Water Distribution Supervisor Adrian Sutor.

“We wanted a system that could help us approach the challenge from multiple angles.”

Walla Walla began their journey toward long-term improvement by transitioning to a smart utility network from Sensus, a Xylem brand. The solution gave the utility better visibility across more than 11,000 water meters. Better yet, it gave Walla Walla a foundation that was scalable down the road.

Flexibility for the Long Haul

Walla Walla’s initial smart network deployment combined Sensus iPERL® residential water meters and OMNI™ commercial meters with the two-way FlexNet® communication network. The system allowed the city to transition from monthly to hourly usage data with remote meter monitoring capabilities that improved leak detection.

“The system has helped us quickly detect everything from large water main breaks right down to running toilets or leaky faucets and work proactively with customers to address them,” said Sutor. “The number of leak forgiveness applications we receive from customers has dropped by 75 percent as a result.”

As water loss improved and dipped below 30 percent, the utility team brainstormed the next phase of their smart water journey. City employees identified pressure monitoring as another effective avenue to reduce water loss and streamline customer service.

A Pulse on Pressure

Walla Walla’s next move was to roll out Sensus ally® water meters coupled with the Sensus Smart Gateway Sensor Interface for advanced pressure monitoring and management. This combination allows remote oversight of pressure, temperature, levels and switches. The deeper view quickly paid off when technicians investigated customer calls regarding low pressure.

“We analyzed the data and determined that pressure was underperforming in one region during a specific time period,” said Sutor. “It turned out to be a demand issue caused by a large irrigation customer and we were able to adjust our pressure settings to get the issues quickly resolved.”

Comparing near real-time data with the utility’s hydraulic model allows the utility team to deliver a high level of customer service around pressure monitoring. It also provides more detailed views into background leakage that’s not visible and underground.

“Whether it’s a leaky pipe or a failing pressure reducing valve, the technology lets us know if something is off with our system,” said Sutor. “These data insights allow us to take action before any issues become costly problems.”

A unique creek-level monitoring application helped the utility respond for public safety when one of the worst rainstorms in decades occurred.

Seasons Change

Walla Walla relies on its smart technology to monitor pressure levels as they vary across zones throughout the day. The team analyzes the accumulated data to pinpoint their next strategic move. For example, when demand from irrigation customers drops during the winter, the system data tells technicians exactly how much to adjust pressure settings to optimize operations.

“Data takes out much of the guesswork,” said Sutor. “It eliminates the need to send more trucks into the field, which helps reduce our carbon footprint and better conserve resources.”

An Emergency Life Jacket

Walla Walla found their network and the battery-powered Smart Gateway sensors provide a public safety tool by monitoring flood-prone regions. During one of their worst rainfall events in decades, creek-level monitoring was a lifesaver.

“We installed sensors up and downstream that sent data back to our network on how quickly the creek was rising,” said Sutor. “The information helped us dispatch crews at the right time to ensure levies weren’t breached.”

Walla Walla will explore more ways to use their smart utility network and improve operations. “Next-generation technology is opening doors for solutions no one even dreamed of,” said Sutor.

Get in the Game

Utilities across the country face challenges with aging infrastructure that leads to NRW. Remote meter management is a good first step towards curbing unintended water loss. Solutions like pressure monitoring can help recapture lost revenue with more visibility across the distribution system.

The demand for smart utility networks will continue as long as aging infrastructure remains a challenge for water utilities. Just like in chess, the strategic moves utilities make now will better prepare them to say “checkmate” to NRW in the future. WW

Dan Pinney vice president of global water product management at Sensus, a Xylem brand.

About the Author

Dan Pinney

Dan Pinney is the global director of water marketing for Sensus, a clean technology solutions company offering smart meters, communication systems, data analytics software, and services for electric, gas, and water industries.