To improve water infrastructure, it's time to think digital

Thu, 2016-07-21 11:58 -- SCC Partner

We’re running out of water. We often blame this on population growth and droughts, but those aren’t the only reasons. The fact is, we waste a lot of it. As you’ll read below, each year, the U.S. wastes more than 2 trillion gallons of treated water each year due to broken infrastructure that earns nearly a failing grade.

It’s impossible to fix everything overnight, but data and predictive analytics provide a great start, directing you to the biggest sources of waste first. As you’ll see, this approach is already helping several cities, including Singapore, stretch their water supplies. What are you waiting for? — Kevin Ebi

By Ralph Exton, Chief Marketing Officer, GE Water & Process Technologies

Although the amount of freshwater has remained fairly constant over time, our population has skyrocketed. By 2025, an estimated two thirds of the world’s population will live in water stressed regions. With water being such a critical resource, is the United States’ water infrastructure managed effectively? Unfortunately, no.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there are over 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S. and gave the country a “D” rating for its drinking water infrastructure. These breaks, combined with leaks, result in 2.1 trillion gallons of treated water lost annually across the US.

The picture is similarly bleak for wastewater, for example with sewer overflows forcing municipalities to grapple with significant costs to come into compliance with EPA regulations. Central to the problem is that providers are oftentimes unaware of an issue, such as a pipe burst, until it literally surfaces. Without real-time insight into network infrastructure conditions, operators are trapped in a negative reactive cycle.

For providers to solve their water infrastructure challenges, they must consider a holistic approach that combines data from assets and external sources, with predictive analytics on a secure digital platform.

Connecting the assets into a real-time monitoring network will reduce the amount of time it takes to discover leaks, water quality issues and other service disruptions, enabling utilities to fix problems more quickly, reduce unplanned outages and limit damage to other pieces of critical infrastructure. Using that same data, predictive analytics will identify and inform operators of potential problems, like a pipe burst or sewer blockage, in advance so that timely maintenance can take place to prevent issues from occurring.

Technology and digital thinking are already making an impact. Modernization of the water grid is in its early stages, but has already brought promising technologies like smart meters (AMI/AMR), high-tech leak detection devices and water data software to market. Digital alliances, like the recently-formed partnership between GE, the world’s leading digital industrial company, and American Water, are pioneering efforts to use digital technology and software to solve urgent water infrastructure challenges.

Success stories globally, in locations like Singapore, and domestically, like Harrisburg, PA and Des Plaines, IL, have started to occur with growing frequency. Replicating and expanding the scope of these successes will take a coordinated effort from citizens, utilities and the public/private sectors to implement these solutions in ways that make both fiscal and environmental sense.

As the chief marketing officer for GE Power, Water & Process Technologies, Ralph Exton is responsible for providing strategic leadership and program direction for the business’s marketing activities, communications, and sustainability efforts.  The Water Environment Federation (WEF), an international organization of water quality professionals, elected Ralph to their 2015-2016 Board of Trustees, where he currently serves as Treasurer.