U.S. utilities are increasingly joining the digital revolution to ensure Americans have a plentiful supply of one of the nation’s most precious resources: an efficient and safe drinking water infrastructure.
Utilities have stepped up efforts in automating the nation’s drinking water system to overcome various challenges facing the industry today and in the not-so-distant future. A Dodge Data & Analytics report released in 2021 showed nearly 90% of utilities are gathering data digitally.
Municipal utilities, which have been replacing manual processes with automation in recent years, are making big investments in their digital transformation to increase the resiliency and safety of the country’s water systems. According to a Bluefield Research report, the industry’s use of digitalization is forecasted to grow nearly 9% annually, reaching $55 billion by the end of the decade, or more than twice its current spending level.
Water utilities seeking solutions to aging infrastructure
Water utilities’ thirst for data-driven water management strategies is largely fueled by the industry seeking solutions to the crumbling, decades-old water infrastructure, much of it fraught with leaky and corroded pipes and water mains, pump failures and other issues that potentially threaten the safe and efficient delivery of drinking water. The COVID- 19 outbreak also spurred the automation of water systems as a result of pandemic-induced service disruptions, exposing some utilities’ vulnerability to efficiently providing services manually or with outdated technology.
Billions of dollars in federal funding allocated in 2022 for the nation’s infrastructure will undoubtedly help water utilities adopt new technology-driven solutions needed to improve water resources. The legislation, known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will funnel about $55 billion over the next five years for infrastructure improvements. A U.S. EPA study conducted in 2015 found that the cost of fixing the country’s drinking water systems amounted to more than $470 billion over the next 20 years.
That funding is especially critical for those utilities figuring out how to meet the water demands of an expanding population, particularly those living in areas increasingly hit with long droughts. For instance, most of the nation’s Western states continue to experience severe drought conditions, with the region’s dry spell in 2022 being the worst in over a millennium, according to a Scientific American report.
The federal aid could not come soon enough for America’s hobbled water infrastructure. For instance, drinking water flowing through the system sometimes does not reach taps because of aging pipes in desperate need of repair or replacement.
According to an American Civil Engineers Society report, there is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated six billion gallons of treated water is lost daily, which is equivalent to filling more than 9,000 swimming pools. The urgency to use smart water management technology for drinking water and wastewater operations is even greater in rural and remote locations, where work crews drive for miles before reaching sites with busted or frozen water pipes or analyzing water levels and quality.
Data-monitoring technology also improves utilities’ ability to accurately and quickly monitor and analyze the proper amount of chlorine and other water-treatment chemicals in water systems, as well as alert utilities of those chemicals leaking onto the ground that may cause soil contamination and other environmental issues. Real-time data collection from sensors placed throughout water distribution systems also can better detect leaks and flow levels, improving water security and conservation.
Additionally, digital technology can benefit utilities by automating some types of work now performed by humans and minimizing the impact of a projected worker shortage in the years ahead. ASCE reported last year that nearly 11% of water utility workers will retire or transfer to other jobs each year, with some anticipating as much as half of their staff to retire in the next five to 10 years.
Federal, state and local drinking water regulations requiring utilities to modernize their operations also have contributed to water utilities’ digitalization efforts.
Wireless automation brings financial, operational benefits to utilities
Those utilities embracing digital transformation are achieving significant financial and operational gains. This includes preparing for more devices communicating with each other with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices, allowing utilities to better collect and study water data that will lead to increased operational performance, lower costs and enhanced safety and security.
Where WiFi and cellular coverage is lacking, edge computing processes data at or near the source, enabling utilities to quickly respond to changing conditions or problems in a water system detected by smart sensors that is then transmitted via satellite. This technology avoids the problems associated with data losses due to lost connectivity, particularly in remote areas where many pipes and water tanks are located. Unlike wired devices, water utilities do not have to worry about animals chewing through wires.
Operational and financial gains with edge computing
One striking example of a successful water-system modernization is a Midwestern utility that needed to upgrade its aging infrastructure because of ballooning operational costs. In 2021, the utility used one year’s worth of its budget for operations to pay for rising energy prices during a three-week cold snap.
The utility’s legacy programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on its water wells and other infrastructure were near the end of their life and new connectivity and data collection system was required for upgraded PLCs. The utility’s data collection method was limited to updates every 15 minutes, resulting in data loss.
Moreover, the utility’s field generators required manual data collection every few days and if the river in the area flooded, workers were unable to gain access to those generators for refueling and general maintenance.
The utility relied on its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) communications system — used for controlling, monitoring and analyzing industrial devices and processes – for decades of operation. But new data and reporting requirements called for a more robust solution. That solution was a multi-radio, edge computing platform.
The utility realized immediate operational benefits from the platform’s installation, which included:
- Faster, more reliable and easier data reporting that dramatically accelerated alerts for workers to take action; and
- Considerable cost savings and productivity gains, such as eliminating manual equipment checks with automated status updates, making data always accessible, and installing a platform for hardware, software and connectivity that provides greater flexibility and lowers the cost of hardware deployments and maintenance.
Water utilities using advanced technologies like edge computing will have a competitive advantage over those entities which have yet to modernize their operations. It is imperative that the water services industry pursue data-driven strategies as a means of achieving maximum financial and operational performance as well as finding innovative and cost-efficient ways to provide plenty of safe drinking water in the 21st century.