Real-time data helps cities avoid sending money down the drain

Thu, 2015-09-17 18:10 -- Kevin Ebi

While California struggles with drought, utilities on the East Coast are trying to find cost-efficient ways to store extra water. Many are also struggling with aging infrastructure, hoping to identify and solve problems before there’s a spectacular failure.

The utilities face a wide range of issues and a growing number of them are turning to sensors and real-time data analytics to help them best address their issues without excessively straining their resources. And some are even finding that their pursuit of data will also lead them to potential new source of revenue. Utility officials talked about these during a smart water discussion at Smart Cities Week.

Looking for control
When Greater Cincinnati Water Works was developing its 50-year vision, it realized the one thing it didn’t have was control – control over how much water flowed into its facility or what happened to it when it left.

The utility can’t control the rain, but it can better control its response. Its plan calls for a network of sensors, real-time data and predictive analytics that will help it optimize its existing infrastructure.

“We wanted to be better connected,” Verna Arnette, deputy director of Greater Cincinnati Water Works. “Better connected to our environment and better connected to our customers.”

Stretching resources for those in poverty
In Baltimore, the city has increased its water rates by more than 40% over a three-year period. That’s tough for a city where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. But as it marks the 100-year anniversary of a facility that’s still in active use, it needs the money to shore up its ancient infrastructure.

Spectacular water main breaks have nearly taken out businesses and people ask the utility where the next failure will be. It’s not a joke. Rudy Chow, the director of the city’s public works department, says the city should know so they know where to prioritize repairs. Detailed assessments of all its assets will help it understand what it needs to fix first and what can wait.

“Being a leader is more than just fighting fires today,” Chow said. “It’s about looking 20 and 50 years down the road.”

Providing better service
In Bellevue, Washington, a high-tech community across a lake from Seattle, its smart water efforts were launched by customer complains. Councilmembers were tired of getting complaints from constituents who were surprised by unusually high water bills. When meters are read only every other month, leaks can go undetected for some time.

The utility is switching to smart water meters, an investment elected officials believe is well worth the money. It’s also trying to determine what exactly it means to be a smart water utility. It’s researching and developing a maturity model – and determining where exactly it falls on it.

It’s also moving from historical models to future forecasts. It’s working with the University of Washington to creative 30-year predictive models that include the expected impacts of climate change so that it can make better plans for storage capacity.

Data as a revenue source
In Washington, D.C., data may not only help the utility save money, but make money. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is in the process of putting sensors on all the key individual parts of its facilities, which will allow it to measure and model specific processes, then entire facilities, then all of its operations.

One way where this might pay off is through the processing of food waste. By better modelling the gas output from its anaerobic digester, it can time the processing of food waste so it produces gas, and therefore power, during peak periods when it is worth the most.

More stories …
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