More than a Drop in the Bucket: How Water is Going Digital

It should come as no surprise that on a planet that's 71% water-covered, the water industry is equally vast. Valued at close to $700 billion, firms in the water utilities space are constantly innovating to improve safety, cut costs, and improve operational efficiency. Climate change and other unknowns have created major challenges for the water utility industry as it attempts to remain resilient amidst rising energy costs and an aging infrastructure.

Gary Wong, the industry Principal for water at OSIsoft and an expert in water and environmental management, sat down to share some of his thoughts about the future of water.

What are the major challenges currently facing the water industry?

Whereas sustainability used to be the hottest issue facing the industry, nowadays it's resilience - ie. How firms can stay resilient to various changes. For instance - climate. Firms need to be able to adapt to things like rain or drought, maintaining resilience in their operations. Energy management is also a huge concern for the industry, as water and wastewater utilities are usually the largest consumer of power, and it takes a lot of energy to move water and to treat it. Lastly, asset management is a constant challenge, as firms need to figure out how to best maintain the pipes and pumps that move and regulate water.

Is the industry an early adopter or a later adopter of new technologies?

Typically, the industry tends to be on the slower, more conservative side, but there's a huge opportunity for the industry to catch up and we're starting to see that now. All utilities are starting to talk about IoT, machine learning, etc, and water firms are absolutely hopping on that bandwagon. Another thing to consider - so much data is going into the cloud these days that it almost forces firms to adopt digital technologies to even be able to access/use it, so that's driving up adoption as well.

Water IP 2What's driving the need for digital technologies?

Cost is a major factor, since many of these utilities are in the public sector, so there are limited funds and they need to focus on reducing energy costs, finding and patching leaks, and meeting supply demands.

This directly ties into asset management as well, since water companies have a lot of pumps and motors that are constantly running, we need to make sure they're running efficiently and as long as possible.

Water quality is a key digital driver in both water and wastewater. Since we don't want people getting sick and we don't want to cause any environmental harm, there are strict standards for water quality that all firms must adhere to. Especially in the case of sewers, if large amounts of rain water collect and overflow the sewers, then water can be discharged without treatment, and this can carry hefty fines ($10 per gallon in the Bay Area).

When it comes to implementing new technology, where is the industry hitting roadblocks?

We take water for granted and the true cost of providing high quality water and wastewater services is not realized in the price today. Another is even though tons of competent vendors may reach out in a given day, the lowest bidder tends to win, and the lowest bidder often can't provide the needed solution. It's like needing to take a rocket ship to the moon, but having to take a bicycle instead. Couple this rocky history of being burned by vendors with the conservative nature of the industry, and there's your roadblock.

What's shaking up the industry right now?

One awesome tool is Olea Edge Analytics, which can turn analog meters into digital meters with built-in analytics. This lets firms measure under-billing from meters that may have been under-charging people in the past. You also have Smart Water Network Forum (SWAN), which is a non-profit dedicated to advancing the use of digital and data-driven solutions in water.

What changes do you expect to see by 2025?

A lot more data through more sensors being deployed, with analytics and digital apps built right in, helping to create that smart water network. Also, more young professionals and solutions using these emerging digital technologies.

How does the PI System factor in to all of this?

Plenty of companies are using the PI System to change the way they operate and are having a lot of success in doing so. Tennessee's White House Utility District was able to save $1.7 million in wasted water by using the PI System to pinpoint leaks. Colorado Springs Utilities was able to reduce overtime hours by 58% because they're now able to forecast potential issues, keep tabs on processes in real-time, and run analytics all within the same dashboard. Thames Water built an 'Intelligence Hub,' with the PI System at the center, allowing them to merge disparate data sources to garner critical insights. Using this hub, they can now determine the cause behind pollution surges and sewer overflows, which means they can intercept these events, helping them to avoid complaints and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential fines.

Learn more about how OSIsoft works with the water industry here.

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