How smart water technologies can equip utilities to address aging infrastructure & the retiring workforce
U.S. water infrastructure is rated D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and according to the American Water Works Assn., 240,000 main breaks are wasting 8 billion cu meters of water in the U.S. every year, costing about $35 per connection. A Utah State University study found that the water main break rate has increased by 27% since 2012. This, combined with utilities facing headwind from a retiring workforce, are top priorities facing water utilities.
Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, augmented reality, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) are giving utilities awareness and control over their operations and insights into detecting problems early. Progressive utilities are using these technologies to solve aging infrastructure and workforce, rising operational costs, and water quality and security issues.
A Forward Leap
Digital models of water distribution systems reduce operational costs by making it easier for utilities to find issues and address them. Digital technologies are making headway in water utilities in these three areas:
1. Leak Detection. Digital utilities are combining IoT with acoustic sensors to find and address water main breaks before they cause major problems. By adding IoT devices to traditional infrastructure such as hydrants and valves, water utilities can monitor pipes for leaks every minute of every day. By finding water main leaks early, utilities can monitor and address the issue before a pipe break occurs. Without the use of digital technologies, leaks can go undetected for months before a catastrophic pipe break, which results in a higher cost to repair, loss of treated water, property damage and customer service interruption.
2. Pressure Management. Utilities are adopting digital pressure management to extend the life of aging pipes. Pressure sensors, combined with software analytics, can give utilities new insight to reduce system pressure when water consumption is low. The latest generation of pressure sensors also can detect transient pressure events and identify problems at the source. Pressure management reduces non-revenue water loss and increases the life expectancy of the water pipes. These new capabilities give utilities options to manage aging water infrastructure and improve customer service.
3. Smart Metering. Advanced metering technology enables continuous two-way communication between the network and metering devices, enabling accurate measurement and collection of detailed usage and billing information, demand-response capabilities, customer alerts and notifications, remote service connections and disconnections and more. Smart meter deployments cut utility costs in all these areas that have previously required personnel to go into the field.
To address issues of an aging workforce, utilities are relying on digital models of their infrastructure to capture “tribal knowledge”. GIS mapping software helps utilities create digital models of their water distribution systems. Utilities can use these models to determine which valves need to close to isolate a section of a main to fix a break. Staff can quickly isolate underground leaks, respond faster to main breaks and prioritize capital improvement spending based on GIS data. As water technicians prepare to operate or repair equipment, augmented reality can present them with a digital model of the equipment with easy-to-use directions.
Utilities also are exploring the use of machine learning and AI to unlock the insights hidden in their data. Some utilities are using water main break history to train machine learning algorithms to predict the condition of the pipe. Others are analyzing years of videos of their water mains to identify problems.
Thanks to IoT and data analytics, it now is economically possible to add sensors anywhere in the distribution system to gain real-time knowledge about the operational state of the water infrastructure. For example, pressure sensors help utilities create improved hydraulic models to better manage water distribution. Analytics also can help utilities identify water aging and water quality issues. By combining water consumption data through smart meters and pressure data using IoT-enabled pressure sensors, utilities can manage pressure to reduce real losses.
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