Using data analytics to make informed water infrastructure maintenance decisions



By:Ryan Schradin

There is a reason why Big Data and data analytics are IT trends that are making their way across all industries and organizations – the ability to take the mountains of data that many organizations already aggregate and analyze them for actionable insights is potentially too beneficial to simply ignore. In the past, decisions were made based on gut instinct, focus groups or polling customers. Today, simply looking at and analyzing available data can be a great way to ensure that all organizational decisions are informed and correct.

This is especially important for organizations such as waste water and water quality utilities, where resources are tight and issues often outpace their ability to respond in a timely manner. And this is why Big Data and data analytics were such massive topics at this year’s annual WEFTEC Conference.

WEFTEC, which is sponsored by the Water Environment Federation (WEF), is the premier conference and technology expo for the water utilities that treat waste water and ensure that clean water is available to citizens. In addition to the representatives from water utilities in attendance, there are also equipment manufacturers and solution providers on site showing off the latest in water treatment and water quality technologies. And, it should come as no surprise that smarter, more data-driven devices were some of the most sought after on the show floor.

Immediately following the conference, we had the opportunity to sit down with Dave Johnston, who works with one of the companies that is spearheading the movement towards aggregating and analyzing the data from water distribution systems – Mueller Water Products. During our discussion, Dave talked about the large challenges facing water utilities, why data is essential for their prioritization and resource allocation and why data is a hot topic in the water quality industry.

Here is what he had to say:

Modern Equipment Manufacturer (MEM): Tell us a bit about Mueller Water Products. What products and solutions does the company offer?

Dave Johnston: Mueller Water Products has been around for more than 160 years and manufactures products and services that include engineered valves, fire hydrants, monitoring products, pipe connection and repair products, leak detection and pipe condition assessment. Generally speaking, we focus on helping municipalities increase operational efficiency and customer service while prioritizing their capital spending.

MEM: We’ve heard many in the industry talking about aging infrastructure as a challenge for water utilities. Why is this a problem right now? What concerns does an aging waste water and water quality infrastructure create for water utilities?

Dave Johnston: As the age of the water infrastructure increases, break rate increases. Break rate is something that analysts and water utilities track quite closely. Over the last six years, the break rate of the North American water systems has increased by 26 percent, and that’s a twofold increase over what it had been in the previous six years.

There are 1.2 million miles of pipeline in North America. As that ages and as the break rate continues to increase, water asset owners have a growing problem. They need methods to manage and mitigate the cost of that increasing break rate.

MEM: What role can Mueller solutions play in helping municipal utilities overcome the challenges of an aging waste water infrastructure?

Dave Johnston: One of the newest solutions we have is a water intelligence platform called Sentryx, a purpose-built GIS-based platform which is designed to collect data from the water distribution system. That data is aggregated and consolidated into specific views and dashboards with data analytics to assist with managing the water system on a day-to-day basis.

The platform, itself, is built on four pillars of distribution monitoring. Those four pillars are leak detection, pressure monitoring, water quality monitoring and metering/flow monitoring. Those four data sources are all critical aspects that measure system conformity. Sentryx brings all four of those data sources together into a single platform and starts to stitch together the value of the sources individually. But where Sentryx has the greatest value is in finding where those data sources intersect and influence each other.

MEM: How can municipalities and water utilities benefit from analyzing water data? What kinds of insights can they gather from it?

Dave Johnston: Within the Sentryx technology platform, there are a number of different workflows and different ways you can look at the data to help make informed decisions. A typical utility has multiple difficult choices it has to make every day – decisions on how to prioritize maintenance tasks and utilize limited resources. But data can make those choices easier and more effective.

For example, using leak detection data and pressure data, together, water utilities can better make decisions about what maintenance activities they need to prioritize and where to focus those limited resources.

Leak detection is an acoustic-based system that listens for leaks in the water network. It’s a great system for identifying where the leaks are, but it doesn’t immediately show the user if it’s a very large leak or if it’s a leak that has the potential to cause a lot of damage. With Sentryx, utilities can identify the location of these leaks and then utilize the pressure data from sensors that are in the vicinity to determine if that leak is also affecting the hydraulics in the area.

Leaks that don’t cause big pressure differences are ones that utilities can make relatively low priority. Leaks that do cause large differences in pressure escalate the scenario very quickly since that indicates a large volume of water moving somewhere as a result of this leak. Water can be very damaging, and if left unattended, the water damage can escalate the consequence of failure considerably.

With Sentryx, utilities can identify the leaks that are highest priority and dispatch a crew to fix them before the problem gets worse and far more destructive. This not only helps to prioritize how best to utilize limited resources, but also saves money. A fix of a big leak that was discovered early is probably between five and ten thousand dollars. Alarge leak with a massive amount of fast-moving water left unchecked and unrepaired for any period of time could increase that cost to millions of dollars very quickly.

MEM: When it comes to utilities, one of the largest topics of conversation and trends is conservation and being “green.” Is this a trend that we’re seeing in the waste water and water quality industry?

Dave Johnston: Environmental initiatives are certainly a trend we’re seeing in the industry – particularly outside the North American market. Every gallon of water pumped requires electricity and chemical treatment – all of those aspects add to the environmental footprint of delivering clean water to a household. In the U.S. alone, the amount of water lost equates to roughly 81 million metric tons of equivalent carbon dioxide. If a water utility is able to mitigate that lost water, that would be the equivalent of planting four billion trees.

MEM: How can data and data analytics play a role in green initiatives?

Dave Johnston: We’re working to bring those four pillars together so there’s even more value and intelligence generated than from looking at any of the data individually. Using water meters, we know how much water was consumed in certain areas. We can assign a distinct meter area (DMA) and measure the total volume of water coming into that area. When we compare that number against the water getting consumed in the area, the difference equates to how much is being lost to leakage. This gives the utility a tool to identify where those problems are so that they can repair them and limit those losses coming out of the pumphouse.

MEM: We recently talked with Barry Liner at WEF, who talked about waste water and water quality equipment becoming smarter. What is Mueller Water Products doing to enable this Smart Water trend?

Dave Johnston: It’s definitely a continuing trend in the industry and I think Barry Liner was probably referring to equipment inside the pumphouse – or inside the treatment facilities – in which he’s very correct. Within those treatment facilities, it is very well known—due to advancements in technology—that the pumps, the quality of the water, the pressure of the water, the efficiency of the system is being monitored via cloud-enabled and connected devices.

However, when [the water] pumps out into the distribution system and into the aging infrastructure, there has not been the technology to adequately measure the pressure or the performance outside of the pumphouse. It’s all pipeline, it’s all aging, it’s fairly expensive and it’s fairly difficult to go out and get that information.

But that’s starting to change. Recent developments in IoT devices, communications, batteries, and the power consumption of IoT devices have made it possible for the cost of acquiring that data to come down. Now, the cost is low enough that it’s worth investing in systems to gather and analyze that data to make sure the distribution system’s performing as well as the treatment facility.

MEM: Barry also talked about cloud enabling these devices to make them more connected. Is this a trend that Mueller Water Products has embraced or plans to embrace?

Dave Johnston: I would say cloud-enablement is a current trend – a technology that is here already. The Sentryx technology that we just launched is a cloud-enabled service. All the data we collect in the field goes to the cloud and is then displayed on our Sentryx technology platform. And that’s certainly something that is going to continue and grow in the future.

MEM: What benefit could users derive from waste water devices becoming cloud enabled? What benefit would Mueller Water Products, itself, derive from cloud-enabling its devices?

Dave Johnston: I think the number one benefit is general accessibility, and that could go for both the end user and the manufacturer. For the data and the platform to be accessible from a web-enabled device is definitely a benefit.

Another benefit is the ability to outsource the need for expensive server infrastructure and expensive assets. As an end user, to tackle something like this and to have thousands—tens of thousands—of IoT devices distributed in a system, there’s a significant server infrastructure that would be required if you were to try to implement the system without a cloud-enabled service. They’d be very limited if they didn’t have that network to tap into.

As for device manufacturers, we can utilize user data from our installed devices to continue to develop our platform. Mueller is very much going down the path of new product development and new product introductions, and we’re going to increase the pace at which we’re delivering new products to the market. The data that we gather from installed devices will allow our engineers to learn about the challenges of water infrastructure faster and develop new products and deliver new value to our end users at a faster rate.

MEM: Mueller Water Products was present at the WEFTEC Conference. What was the most exciting thing for you at this year’s show?

Dave Johnston:
For us it was our Sentryx technology platform. We officially launched Sentryx on the first day of WEFTEC, and – over those three days – we did hundreds and hundreds of demonstrations. We were also excited to announce our new Centurion fire hydrant, which is part of our smart water portfolio. It’s a new fire hydrant that has integrated pressure monitoring in it and that can be purchased brand new, or as a retrofit kit which can be installed on any five and a quarter inch Centurion fire hydrant manufactured since 1975.

Overall, there was a lot of interest in data analytics. It was a common theme among the industry – there’s a lot of data available to use to make informed decisions, but the right analytics tools are necessary to get the value out of the data. This is why Mueller is working to continue adding data analytics and machine learning into the back end of the platform – to help users find new patterns and new insights in the system that they couldn’t before.

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