Water and wastewater operators across Canada are facing a challenging business environment. As with managers across many industries, they are being asked to do more with increasingly scarce resources. With fewer employees and extremely limited budgets, it is not surprising that many communities are hesitant to invest in new technologies, opting instead for an ad hoc approach by focusing their spending on emergency repairs and critical modernization when needed.
Ignoring technology investments is a mistake. Smart technologies can create greater efficiencies, which is a large part of the solution for communities looking to provide affordable quality water and wastewater services to their populations. Smart technologies can help optimize operations and repairs to physical infrastructure, preserve the knowledge of a retiring workforce, and boost the overall energy efficiency of plants. The key is to have a plan that quantifies the return on investment (ROI) in a staged implementation.
Municipal water and wastewater infrastructures across the country are in dire need of repairs and replacement. Some larger cities have watermains that are more than 100 years old, operating well beyond their life expectancies and likely to be stressed even further as populations in metropolitan areas continue to grow rapidly. Postponing necessary infrastructure upgrades will only end up costing communities more in the long run as they will be scrambling to manage major leaks and repairs at the same time as needing to coordinate the implementation of necessary upgrades. The BC Water & Waste Association recently released a report stating that communities in British Columbia will require at least $13 billion in additional investments to replace water and wastewater systems.
Some Canadian municipalities are also facing water scarcity, a problem that risks becoming more prevalent as climate change continues to affect rainfall quantity and increase the risk of drought and flooding in many areas. Affected municipalities are already under pressure to use the water they have more efficiently, and they will likely be under even more pressure as their populations continue to grow.
If outdated infrastructure and scarcity weren’t big enough problems already, communities also have to deal with an aging workforce. Not enough new operators are being trained to run the plants, and this shortfall will be felt most keenly in plants with unreliable equipment. Municipalities need solid strategies to ensure they don’t lose valuable knowledge.
Given the challenges in acquiring funds to properly maintain infrastructure, facilities often wait until equipment fails before replacing it—but the long-term costs significantly outweigh the perceived short-term benefits. Unplanned downtime can result in boil water advisories to the communities, or worse in the wastewater operations.
Getting smart about modernizing infrastructure starts with a thorough audit of existing systems. This will enable managers to identify the “quick wins” from the upgrades that will take longer to show ROI. Armed with this information, managers will be better positioned to come up with a plan to implement relatively inexpensive solutions—like software modelling upgrades—as well as larger capital expenditures that qualify for efficiency rebate programs. But crucial to any smart modernization strategy is multi-year budget planning with multiple planned stages of investment; projects with a longer ROI will only justify themselves after a few years of operation and often require investments across different areas of the system. By breaking projects down into multiple stages at an acceptable pace of investment, smart modernization strategies can be brought within reach of the communities who need them.
Investing in smart technology is also key to improving plant performance and capitalizing on potential savings from increased efficiencies. Whether applying these technologies to pumps, pressure monitors, or flow equipment, today’s devices are able to generate a wealth of data that can help operators manage infrastructure more efficiently, limit rip-and-replace upgrades, and help municipalities get the most out of their budgets. This expanded visibility into operations is especially important as we train fewer operators to manage ever-larger systems.
Tying it all together
Examining metrics like water flow or pump performance is old news. Wastewater operators have been able to collect this information for decades, but the data often resides in disparate and isolated systems, which limits operators’ abilities to draw useful analyses from it. With smart water systems, stakeholders would be better able to draw informed correlations and analyses from the data in real time and in context.
Smart water systems deploy software suites that combine data from multiple sources— such as weather prediction and hydraulic modelling—and present it in a way that makes it valuable to stakeholders throughout the organization. For example, sharing data between power monitoring and operations can facilitate better scheduling and allow managers to capitalize on time-of-day savings. Other examples include asset management information, which can be used for both maintenance and capital expenditure planning; and information from the energy efficiency of drives, which can be used for predictive maintenance as well.
Smart water systems can also help facilitate the creation of a well-designed system that optimizes operations, maximizes water quality, reduces the number of service interruptions, maintains consistent water pressure, and does so reliably over time. Smart water systems can also help extend equipment life spans by yielding data that can help managers determine optimal usage levels. The efficiencies gained as a result could allow managers to capitalize on savings from optimizing the system’s energy consumption (such as scheduling filter backwash during non-peak electrical times) and from participating in electrical utility rebate programs. Because these software solutions are relatively inexpensive to implement and flexible in their scale, prevention of a single critical downtime event can often justify the overall cost
of a project.
There is no doubt that it’s a challenging time. Water and wastewater treatment are critical processes in our communities, and it is imperative municipalities ensure the longevity of these systems. Staged modernization is one way to future-proof these systems. It addresses the most critical aspects of the plants, ensuring high water quality and long-term availability while maximizing investment dollars and minimizing downtime due to upgrade projects.
Pam MacGillivray is the segment manager for water and wastewater with Schneider Electric Canada.