AFTER 6+ YEARS OF WORKING IN THE DIGITAL WATER SPACE, I FINALLY ATTENDED MY FIRST WEFTEC CONFERENCE LAST WEEK IN CHICAGO. I THOUGHT I’D SHARE THREE THOUGHTS FROM THE LONG DAYS ON THE CONFERENCE FLOOR.
Software ‘Silver Bullets’ are the Hype
At every municipal water or wastewater technology conference you are guaranteed to hear a pitch centered around two barriers to scaling digital water technologies; the siloed nature of utilities, and multi-vendor cloud-platform fatigue.
While there is some validity in these statements, the prevalence of this message at WEFTEC 2023, particularly amongst software technology vendors, struck me. There is a growing number of software solutions positioning as data agnostic, capable of pulling data from across multiple siloed workflows, and efficiently delivering key insights in a condensed, customizable dashboard. Tackling asset management optimization, failure prediction, network optimization (clean and collection), inflow & infiltration, sewer blockage, regulatory compliance, etc., these platforms offer an exciting view towards the future of our sector.
However, there is a negative side to the hype cycle that these solutions create. As with any analysis, the quality of insight is directly proportional to the quality of data collected. Context, both in terms of the utility asset and operating practice to which the data is associated and in terms of how the device collecting data may leverage edge computing to collect such data (e.g. transient detection), can easily be lost in a data aggregation exercise. Furthermore, putting too much focus on ‘source agnostic’ risks misrepresenting the importance of securing quality and reliability along the entire value stream of data collection, which in turn risks utility fatigue and ballooning O&M budgets to manage underperforming remote monitoring fleets. A vicious cycle would ensue.
Technologies that help ease the complexity of collecting, storing, and analyzing high-resolution network data, or controlling critical assets, are often better delivered in bespoke, application-specific platforms.
Cathodic Protection is Treated as a Static Safety Factor
Cathodic protection (CP) is an extremely common, but severely underrepresented, technology segment within the municipal utility world. Why? It is largely treated as a safety factor – something that adds 10 to 20% of life on an asset but beyond that has no perceived operating value.
One reason is the prevalence of galvanic protection in industry. Thousands if not millions of galvanic anodes are attached to ductile iron watermains, flanges, hydrant risers, and steel flanges for PVC pipe, every year. Some utilities have programs to retrofit old watermains with CP. In the lion’s share of cases, anodes are directly connected and buried next to the asset, never to be seen again. The utility is content that they may have increased the expected life of a watermain from 50 to 55 years, or 75 to 85. Who really knows?
For some water utilities that manage steel and PCCP pipelines, impressed current systems have been leveraged to efficiently move current through the asset for corrosion mitigation. However, in most cases these systems slip into a state of unknown – lack of understanding or institutional knowledge, lack of digitized test station locations, lack of a testing program – all contribute to a gradual abandonment of the protection system.
With broader industry trends of water supply scarcity and aging infrastructure, it is a wonder that more utilities are not shifting towards a proactive corrosion prevention strategy, to extend the life of their assets with confidence. Monitoring technology, which has been proven and tested for more than three decades in the gas pipeline industry, can form the basis of an efficient CP program that can be rapidly institutionalized.
Pressure management still flying under the radar in the NRW fight in North America
At a high level, if one had to summarize the technologies presented at Weftech to tackle the non-revenue water challenge, they would include metering, leak detection, condition assessment, and asset failure prediction modelling (plus a nice data agnostic software layer to bring this all together…). Surprisingly, a critical narrative is still largely missing – advanced pressure management and network stability.
Pressure management is simple – the amount of water that leaks from a pressurized asset is directly proportional to pressure. Because water demand typically follows a diurnal pattern (peaking in the morning and evening and dropping off overnight), the pressure requirements in a water system also follow that pattern. Less pressure is required at night to service the population and commercial/industrial businesses’ demands. Therefore, advanced pressure management involves the reduction of pressure using pressure reduction valves placed at strategic locations across a distribution network. Remote data loggers and controllers can efficiently monitor and adjust these assets, ensuring that minimum pressure requirements are met, while enabling gradual optimization of the network as more and more data is collected, all to understand and maximize network stability. New applications in closed-loop control shift this further into the future, where controllers can respond to pressure and flow levels at critical points and react automatically.
MOBILTEX is striving to contribute to the awareness of advanced pressure management in our industry, and after my time at WEFTEC, it’s clear that there is plenty of work ahead…