Can We Engineer Clean Drinking Water?

Are You Up for the Challenge?

How Engineers Are Making Old Water Infrastructure Smart
Joan Thompson posted on October 19, 2016 | 3941 views

Imagine you order a one-person pizza with six slices, but when it arrives at your house there is one missing. You are annoyed that you still have to pay for the whole pizza, so you ask what happened to it. And the delivery man says, “I don’t know, the sixth slice must have gotten lost along the way here.”

That scenario more or less describes drinking water systems in the United States. Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources that go into treating our water, we lose an average of one-sixth of it by the time it reaches our taps. This loss happens as a result of pipeline leaks, breaks, poor efficiency, or even theft. Locating where exactly these losses are coming from, though, is easier said than done.
To the left is a water main being built in 1878. To the right, a water main that is even older being rehabilitated to prevent leaks, a very expensive process. (Image courtesy of Louisville Water Co.)
To the left is a water main being built in 1878. To the right, a water main that is even older being rehabilitated to prevent leaks, a very expensive process. (Image courtesy of Louisville Water Co.)

Manually inspecting pump stations and pipeline networks is rigorous, unrewarding work. Networks of water mains and pipes in any one city are far too vast to analyze completely. New York City, for instance, has approximately 6,800 miles of water mains, as well as 836,000 service lines (connections from the mains to the buildings).

Nowadays, utilities must expand to keep up with growing populations while also meeting more stringent drinking water guidelines. It is simply too much to ask that we continue to analyze systems for water losses the old-fashioned way.

To address this, electronic devices and smart systems are increasingly being built and connected to pipes and pump fixtures for a better understanding of our water infrastructure. The Smart Water Handbook from Mueller Water Products delves into what the Internet of Things (IoT) has to offer for water infrastructure:

  • Aging Water Infrastructure: While our current pipe networks are very old, some of them are still in good condition and don’t need replacing. Gathering data on water networks will help utility workers save replacement expenses for pipelines that are of the highest priority.
  • Aging/Retiring Workforce: A large portion of the workforce will be leaving in the next 10 to 15 years and the generation entering the field will expect more advanced technology to be present. IoT technologies will help to compensate for the lost knowledge and experience.
  • Non-Revenue Water Management and Leak Detection: In some public utility systems, leakage is such a serious problem that most of the water is not accounted for. Installing sensor devices of varying technology connected to a cloud can help utility workers know where the problem areas are.
  • Real-Time, Online Water Quality Monitoring: Water quality monitoring stations makes it possible to keep an eye on residual chorine, pH and temperature in real time—important parameters when it comes to maintaining water quality as a whole.
  • Interoperability of Smart Network Devices: An integration of existing databases will facilitate collaboration between utilities and a maximized use of gathered information.

Water leakage is an important issue in our drinking water treatment system, but the points in this list make it clear that utility workers have to worry about so much more than just delivering the sixth slice of pizza.

To understand just why these points were chosen as areas of the water industry where IoT has the most potential, let’s look at a few case studies, starting with the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Pumps, Pressure Surges, Theft

Saipan: Water Loss Due to Inefficiency and Insecurity

Approximately 4,000 miles west of Hawaii and 1,500 miles south of Japan is the small island of Saipan. It is the most westerly territory of the U.S. and is home to a population of approximately 40,000 people.

On the island, Commonwealth Utilities Corporation supplies drinking water to most of the population. Saipan is a tropical island that sees abundant rainfall throughout the year, but despite this, the drinking water system is insufficient for residents’ needs.
The island of Saipan was losing 70 percent of its potable water as a result of leaky pipes, poor meter maintenance and theft. Because of the excessive loss of fresh water, declining water quality has also been a concern on the island.
The island of Saipan was losing 70 percent of its potable water as a result of leaky pipes, poor meter maintenance and theft. Because of the excessive loss of fresh water, declining water quality has also been a concern on the island.

The utility staff at Saipan did not have the funding necessary to address the existing infrastructure problems with adequacy, so it turned to CH2M Hill.

The international civil engineering giant is involved in a number of projects under the name Intelligent Water Solutions. The goal? To deploy smart systems in water treatment plants and water distribution systems to improve their overall reliability and efficiency.

With only 15 percent of the island’s population receiving a few hours of water a day and only 30 percent of the water actually being accounted for, Saipan was a place of enormous potential for a project under CH2M Hill’s Intelligent Water Solutions.
The AWWA/IWA Water Balance Table: A categorized display of how water can be lost from treatment system to tap. (Image courtesy of the AWWA/IWA.)
The AWWA/IWA Water Balance Table: A categorized display of how water can be lost from treatment system to tap. (Image courtesy of the AWWA/IWA.)

“Water was lost from a number of different ways; pipeline leaks, pipeline breaks, [even] theft is quite a universal problem, even in the United States,” said Ken Thompson, director of Intelligent Water Solutions. “He also mentioned that poor meter maintenance, where workers don’t register the flow or conduct meter readings properly, is an issue.”

Thompson described Saipan as a small utility with little annual revenue because of a low population.  There were some major infrastructure problems in place, without the time or resources to identify and correct them adequately.

“We have actually implemented smart technology into the system to help them reduce their water loss, improve water quality, resulting in reduced cost of operations through energy reduction,” says Thompson. “They have really embraced technology. When we first started the water system was 100-percent manually operated.”
To the left, a water quality monitoring station in Saipan. To the right, other water monitoring equipment is maintained. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
To the left, a water quality monitoring station in Saipan. To the right, other water monitoring equipment is maintained. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)

“We are working with them to automate the system so that when a pump station shuts down, the wells feeding the pumps also shuts down so you don’t keep pumping water and just having it wasted to the environment,” said Thompson.

Identifying the root causes of pipeline breaks was also a factor.

“We found one area where they were having a pipeline break maybe once or twice a week,” Thompson explained. “We put some pressure transducers into the system. From this, we identified these huge surges of pressure; by eliminating that surge and stabilizing that pressure, they haven’t had a pipeline break in that section for about a year now.”

CH2M Hill is still working with Saipan’s water utility, but so far, efforts have cut down water loss by 20 percent. Savings are predicted to amount to $750,000 for every 10-percent water reduction. It’s a significant victory for an island of 40,000 inhabitants.

 

Pipeline Leak Detection

More than Just Plugging a Hole

When you find a leak underneath the kitchen sink in your home, it’s a simple fix that, worst-case scenario, may require a drive to the home improvement store. Imagine fixing a leak that you can’t see, that is under several feet of soil and pavement, and where making a mistake may cause someone to get sick.

Mark Grabowski is the vice president of Electro Scan, the creator of a device that is inserted into water mains to detect leaks. He knows what the struggle is like.

“In a sewer, you have access about every 200 ft, whereas there are no actual access points to get into the water mains,” said Grabowski. “What you are putting in the water also has to be absolutely completely sterile. What you are putting into that pipeline will eventually make its way to people’s homes, schools, hospitals.”

Another challenge is the immense pressure under which water mains operate. According to Grabowski, they can operate from 40 up to 200 psi. This is comparable to inserting a device up to a few hundred feet deep in the ocean.

“That’s why a lot of pipeline leak detection technologies kind of shied away from water mains—because it was difficult,” says Grabowski.

On top of the public health and engineering challenges, Grabowski explained that there hasn’t historically been very much accountability for water losses. Engineers have traditionally had little motivation to develop water main leak detection technologies, but in recent times, government officials have taken water loss more seriously.

 

A New Leak Detection Device for Water Main

A report from the National Research Council of Canada, issued before technology such as that of Electro Scan, gave an overview of concurrent water main leak detection technologies. It included tracer gas, infrared imaging and ground-penetrating radar—all of which were limited in their effectiveness.

The best technology at the time, believe it or not, was actually just listening.

When a pipe is leaking, it usually produces more noise than its surrounding environment. Using signal amplifiers and noise filters, utility workers would listen to the underground pipe networks to find the approximate location of a leak.

Typical listening devices for acoustic sensory technology. Signal processors can be used to interpret sound signals, but otherwise, the effectiveness is based on the user’s experience listening to leaks. (Image courtesy of the National Research Council/Palmer Environmental Ltd.)
Typical listening devices for acoustic sensory technology. Signal processors can be used to interpret sound signals, but otherwise, the effectiveness is based on the user’s experience listening to leaks. (Image courtesy of the National Research Council/Palmer Environmental Ltd.)

Aside from acoustic sensory technology, utility workers can also use a closed-circuit television (CCTV) device, which involves attaching a camera to a probe and feeding it through the inside of the pipe. Both processes are slow and painstaking—and leave the results open to personal interpretation.

Electro Scan was developed so that civil engineers could have a more straightforward method of detecting leaks. The technology is essentially a probe that is fed through a pipeline at a velocity of approximately one foot per second. The probe emits a ring of electrical current, at about 12 V, A/C, and at 40 milliamps.

“The voltage is small, but it operates at a very high frequency,” explained Grabowski. “So as [the electricity] goes through the pipe, it’s looking for a way to escape. The ring of electricity stays contained within the pipe because the material is not conductive, but when it reaches a leak, the electricity goes into the ground.”

As the probe travels through the pipe, the electrical conductivity data is sent back through fiber-optic cables.
A data processing facility is usually located in a van nearby where the probe is attached. (Image courtesy of Electro Scan.)
A data processing facility is usually located in a van nearby where the probe is attached. (Image courtesy of Electro Scan.)

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water mains are commonly made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), cast iron, copper, steel and in older systems, concrete or fired clay.

The material depends heavily on the time period, municipality, or availability. Sometimes, one water main will have a number of disjointed materials.

Electro Scan is a promising leak detection technology, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The technology works best if the surrounding pipe material has a low electrical conductivity, for example, concrete or plastic pipe. If the probe is traveling through a pipe made of metal, such as iron or copper, then the electrical current passes right through the pipe wall, making leak detection really difficult.

It helps if these metal pipes have an insulative coating on the interior, but electricity-resistant material, such as clay or plastic, work best.

Electro Scan has its limits, but it is useful in that its deployment into a water main can collect more than just one type of data.

 

Water Mains Uncovered for the First Time in 100 Years

“If we are going to make the effort of launching into a pipe line, then we’re going to collect as much data as possible,” said Grabowski. “With our technology, we are now bringing in electro-scan testing, low-voltage connectivity testing, acoustic testing. We are also putting an HD CCTV camera on the front of it and implementing pressure sensors.”

All of this data, including that from the HD CCTV, is relayed back to a nearby vehicle equipped with computers. At this processing facility, the data is uploaded to the cloud so that it can be analyzed remotely.

“[Using this smart system] we are able to see, with positivity, what could be the problem area, what could be the leak,” said Grabowski. “It’s essentially delivering a full package.”

Grabowski is just as concerned as other utility workers about aging water infrastructure in the U.S.

“Can you imagine the amount of construction that has occurred above a 100-year old water main? How many more pipes?” Grabowski queried. “For instance, fiber-optic cables, storm sewers, buildings, streets, trees. If we’re going to go down and dig up every single pipeline, I’m not sure we’d have anything left! It would just be a nightmare.”

“We need to analyze them first. Knowing what we’re working with gives a great advantage, especially when it comes to knowing where leaks are and how you are going to fix it.”

 

Improving Water Quality

Conserving water is certainly important, but what takes priority is abiding by drinking water standards and protecting consumers’ health.

David Reckhow is the head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of the University of Massachusetts. One of his research projects involves analyzing the Philadelphia water distribution system for unregulated contaminants.

“[A drinking water distribution system] may include hundreds of miles of pipe and every little bit of it may be a different,” said Reckhow. “We have to be able to measure the disparate water quality that exists across these enormous systems.”

A diagram shows the different types of contaminants that can form in a pipe while the water is traveling to its destination. (Image courtesy of the EPA.)
A diagram shows the different types of contaminants that can form in a pipe while the water is traveling to its destination. (Image courtesy of the EPA.)

“I’d love to see better tools to do remote sensing water quality that is meaningful, that can be done in a way that is distributed, inexpensive, and where information can be transmitted to the people who need it,” Reckhow continued.

Remote water quality sensory devices are picking up steam in the water industry. Reckhow believes that we have the technology to do it, but the right technology has to be applied.

As a former utility consultant, Ken Thompson shares this point of view.

“I’ve been bringing the perspective from the utility operator into our projects [CH2M Hill Intelligent Water Solutions],” Thompson said. “During my 20 years with utilities, I’ve been there when you’ve never had enough information to make decisions and you have to do the best you can.”

 

What Doesn’t Work: Overburdening Utility Workers

Though Thompson has conducted a number of projects that involve using smart technology to monitor water quality, some have worked better than others.

“One project was with Sandia National Laboratories and involved measuring biotoxins in the water in real time, something that had never really been done before,” said Thompson.

The goal was to monitor water quality at the site in near-real time every 15 to 20 minutes. One of the greatest challenges was that it required specialized environmental control. Additionally, utility workers were required to visit the site regularly to fix issues like replacing clogged micro-tubing and maintain chemical reagents. This made the system a deal breaker.

The above image shows the biotoxin monitor in question. Many of the issues were with the microtubing, reagents and micropumps that were part of the system. (Image courtesy of Ken Thompson.)
The above image shows the biotoxin monitor in question. Many of the issues were with the microtubing, reagents and micropumps that were part of the system. (Image courtesy of Ken Thompson.)

“In my experience of working with utility operators, if something takes in an abnormally long time to maintain, the technologies are just going to fail. Utility staff have so many other things to do to keep the system operating properly, they really can’t afford to babysit,” said Thompson.

 

What Does Work: Making the Lives of Utility Workers Easier

Since the system was too difficult to operate and maintain, the engineers at CH2M switched gears.

“We went back to looking at what’s called surrogate technologies, which could indicate that something unusual has changed in the different chemical, biological and radiological classes,” said Thompson. “We realized it is best to use technologies that need to be maintained once every 30 to 60 days at the most.”

By replacing more rigorous biotoxin evaluation systems with less complex technology, CH2M went forward to integrate water quality systems with public health networks. These major projects have gone on for six years in New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas and Cincinnati. CH2M is currently working with the EPA to create guidance manuals based on what they have learned from the demonstration projects.

“[These projects] were focused on looking at real-time water quality changes and the distribution system that could create tons of problems for the end users,” Thompson explained. “Multiple water quality technologies were integrated with consumer calls, security alarms and spatially located public health calls about emergency room visits, over-the-counter drug sales and ambulance calls.”
A real-time water quality evaluation system is displayed for Dallas. The water droplet symbols are water quality monitoring stations. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
A real-time water quality evaluation system is displayed for Dallas. The water droplet symbols are water quality monitoring stations. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
The water quality monitoring software includes quick-glance gauge views of the level of contaminants so that utility workers can keep an eye on them. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
The water quality monitoring software includes quick-glance gauge views of the level of contaminants so that utility workers can keep an eye on them. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
The level of residual chlorine in the system is a good indicator of possible contaminants present. A concentration vs. time graph can help utility workers keep a close eye on it. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)
The level of residual chlorine in the system is a good indicator of possible contaminants present. A concentration vs. time graph can help utility workers keep a close eye on it. (Image courtesy of CH2M Hill.)

Other companies such as PTC and Microsoft offer dashboard applications that include charts, grids and drag-and-drop features that make displaying information a breeze for engineers and utility workers.

The end goal is to develop a Surveillance and Response Program with the EPA and provide guidance to utility workers so that they know how to react if there is a threat of water contaminations.

“For utilities, it’s really about what are the best practices in being able to respond for unusual incidents in the system, which could be operational anomalies or threat-based,” said Thompson.

 

Bring Water Infrastructure into the “Now”

Introducing IoT to water systems is about more than improving water quality and reducing water loss.

“We’re going to see a lot of knowledge being lost as people retire in the next five to 10 years,” said Thompson. “And the generation that’s coming on board is going to expect more technology to be in play. Our kids are growing up with iPads or iPhones when they are as young as five years old. When they get to the working age, they are going to expect that same technology in their businesses.”

Thompson stated that he has already seen the younger generation coming into the water industry work force and immediately accepting smart systems. Their perspective differs significantly from those who are used to the old ways of doing business.

“The water industry is conservative; I know that after working with them for over 35 years,” said Thompson. “Things tend to change slowly.”

It is no wonder that this is the case, given the sheer level of responsibility that civil engineers have. The crisis in Flint, Mich., which caused lead poisoning and sickness on a catastrophic scale, was caused by a drastic change in the drinking water supply. If you were faced with budget shortfalls, a growing population and more stringent maximum contaminant levels, you would want to keep doing what you know has always worked.

This can’t last forever, though. Drinking water systems in the U.S. are not improving with time. In order to address aging infrastructure, engineers have to expand their knowledge of current systems. “That’s the important thing,” said Thompson. “Once you have the information, you can actually take action and correct the problem.”


Engineers, We Want to Hear From You:

  • CH2M Hill attempted to monitor biotoxins in real time but had to abandon the project because it was too difficult to fix issues like replacing the clogged micro-tubing and maintaining chemical reagents. Are there any research projects out there to make these types of technologies less complex and easier to maintain? How else can we monitor biotoxins in real time to better safeguard drinking water distribution systems?

More on Water

RE: Story Discussion: How to measure biotoxins in real time?

  • Reply by member: TheEngineer | Reply to thread

    ENGINEERING.com writer Joan Thompson's article on smart water infrastructure has been published at:

    How Engineers Are Making Old Water Infrastructure Smart
    http://www.engineering.com/DesignerEdge/water/Arti...

    Quote:

    Imagine you order a one-person pizza with six slices, but when it arrives at your house there is one missing. You are annoyed that you still have to pay for the whole pizza, so you ask what happened to it. And the delivery man says, “I don’t know, the sixth slice must have gotten lost along the way here.”

    That scenario more or less describes drinking water systems in the United States. Despite the enormous amount of energy and resources that go into treating our water, we lose an average of one-sixth of it by the time it reaches our taps. This loss happens as a result of pipeline leaks, breaks, poor efficiency, or even theft. Locating where exactly these losses are coming from, though, is easier said than done....

    Engineers, we want to hear from you:

    CH2M Hill attempted to monitor biotoxins in real time but had to abandon the project because it was too difficult to fix issues like replacing the clogged micro-tubing and maintaining chemical reagents. Are there any research projects out there to make these types of technologies less complex and easier to maintain? How else can we monitor biotoxins in real time to better safeguard drinking water distribution systems?