An arctic blast swept in from the North Pole in February of 2021, with effects reaching 26 states across the United States. Hardest hit was the state of Texas, with an unexpected deep freeze affecting much of the area. Winter storm Uri brought a dangerous mix of snow, freezing rain, and ice to the Lone Star state, along with unprecedented frigid temperatures that lasted a few days.
In the wake of the storm, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency. The National Weather Service issued its first-ever, all-county winter warning across the entire state of Texas. From east to west, residents withstood freezing conditions leading to compromised utility systems that left millions of residents without electricity or water.
Power blackouts spanned most of the state and approximately 12 million Texans — almost half of the state’s population — experienced a disruption in water service at the height of the storm. However, for three cities in Northeast Texas, strategic, smart preparation by their municipal utilities made the difference between a quick, resilient response and a sustained crisis.
The cities of Arlington, Coppell, and Jacksonville were well equipped to serve their customers with a rapid response to the storm’s effects because each of the municipalities deployed a smart utility network, outfitted with remotely-managed meters that allowed for a proactive, secure transmission of customer water usage data.
Timely Data for Arlington
The City of Arlington experienced a rare three-inch snowfall followed by a deep freeze — typically unheard of in Texas. Sustained power outages left homes frigid, causing non-insulated water pipes to freeze and burst. Many citizens dealt with interruptions in their water service, while those who continued to get water were placed under a precautionary boil water advisory.
With thousands of residents facing either flooded homes or no access to clean drinking water, the City of Arlington sprang into action. Using its Sensus FlexNet® communication network, the city was able to remotely pinpoint 1,800 private plumbing breaks based on unusually high, continuous usage data. Arlington Water Utility staff proactively notified residents about leaks before the threat of unsurmountable property damage was realized and remotely shut off water to homes with identified leaks.
Arlington’s utility staff also turned to FlexNet data and determined that more than 4,800 apartment units did not show water usage. They collaborated with Arlington Code Enforcement to investigate and ensure quick repairs at 47 complexes.
“The data helped us pinpoint customers in need of water,” said Arlington Water Utilities Director Craig M. Cummings. “The City set up water container filling stations for apartment renters until repairs could be made, so the right data at the right time made a real difference.”
X-ray Vision for Coppell
About 20 miles from Arlington, record-low temperatures left the City of Coppell in a similar situation, with residents experiencing frozen, burst pipes due to loss of electricity and heat. This posed a threat to Coppell’s more than 40,000 citizens, as most were stuck inside their homes throughout the duration of the storm. Again, the municipality utilized reliable digital technology to pinpoint issues.
“The FlexNet communication network is like having X-ray vision of your water system,” said Coppell’s Assistant Director of Public Works Michael Garza. “We identified hundreds of leaks and knew exactly where to go to shut off water and help customers avoid further water loss or property damage.”
In just one day, the city’s utility team and fire department shut off the water flowing to approximately 400 homes and businesses affected by leaks identified through the system’s twice-daily-reports.
As recovery efforts continued, the Coppell utility team proactively updated residents through its MyH2O Customer Portal, sharing timely alerts for spikes in usage along with service updates and other information. In the days following the storm, more than 200 Coppell residents realized the value and convenience of the customer portal and created an account.
Big Savings in Jacksonville
Farther east, the City of Jacksonville kept busy throughout the wild weather. Almost as if this storm had been predicted, the Jacksonville Water and Sewer Utilities team had upgraded its aging system to a smart utility network just two years prior.
Extreme weather events were not the initial reason for the city’s water system modernization, but winter storm Uri quickly proved just how critical that decision could be for the safety and the resiliency of Jacksonville’s communities.
Utility staff checked timely usage reports, which revealed that some customers were losing up to 28,000 gallons of water per day — 280 times more than a normal day’s consumption. Based on this data, the city used the ally® water meter and two-way FlexNet system to remotely and strategically shut off water to residential customers, protecting their homes and families.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, the system we installed saved us millions of gallons of water,” said Jacksonville’s former City Manager Greg Smith.
The smart meter’s integrated pressure sensor remotely identified pressure points around the city, which allowed the team to isolate water main and service line breaks. They identified and addressed approximately 65 issues — half of which were discovered by data from the smart water meters.
In just 72 hours, Jacksonville utility workers remotely located leaks, prevented further damage and began repairs across the water distribution system. The quick response resulted in the city earning the Texas Municipal League (TML) Excellence Award, which recognizes municipalities for innovative problem-solving, excellent management and high levels of service.
“Without the Xylem system, the entire city could have been without water, and our response would have been totally different,” said Smith. “The system paid for itself in just that one week.”
Preparedness Leads to Resiliency
Throughout the winter event, city employees in Arlington, Coppell, and Jacksonville prevented major damage and quickly resumed water operations, all while openly and aptly communicating with their customers.
For each of these municipalities, preparedness made the difference between a major crisis and timely response that resulted in quick relief. Being equipped with a smart digital network allowed utilities to provide many of their customers with uninterrupted water service and to prioritize the health and safety of community members during an unwelcome storm.
As extreme and unexpected weather crises continue across the United States and globally, municipal utilities are uniquely positioned to help their communities weather the storm. Resilient, remotely-managed systems can ensure a prompt response and quick recovery in times of emergency. WW
Published in WaterWorld magazine, February 2022.