Information Technology Solutions: Defining the Future of Water and...

Information Technology Solutions: Defining the Future of Water and Wastewater Industries

By Margaret E. Tanner, P.E. and Steve Niemeyer, P.E., Deputy Directors for Environmental Services at Jefferson County, Alabama

Margaret E. Tanner, P.E. and Steve Niemeyer, P.E., Deputy Directors for Environmental Services at Jefferson County, Alabama

When it comes to the environmental technology space, information technology is the name of the game.  Today, when there is a need to increase efficiencies, water and wastewater utilities are relying on information technology solutions instead of depending on paperwork.  A prime application of that can be observed in our organization, Jefferson County Environmental Services Department (ESD).  ESD manages the wastewater services for about 480,000residents in 24 different municipalities, the largest being Birmingham.  The system requires nine different water reclamation facilities (WRFs),approximately 3,100 miles of sewer lines, and 170 pump stations. 

Over the last decade ESD has been moving to a more technologically focused and automated work environment.  For example, a robust asset management solution for our collection system was implemented to help with sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) tracking and reporting.  As a large wastewater utility, we respond to SSOs regularly, and that's where technology provides us a comprehensive solution.  Our field staff now takes images of an over-flowing sewer and uploads them directly through our asset management software.  This field documentation, using an app on a cellular phone, streamlines preparation of required reports to state and federal regulatory agencies.

"Today, when there is a need to increase efficiencies, water and waste water utilities are relying on information technology solutions instead of depending on paperwork"

Information must be synced with the asset management system, which codes every asset electronically; for example, every manhole is named and numbered through an electronic system that ultimately feeds data to the asset management system.  Historically data collection was paper-driven, with crews taking photos and then returning to the office to print and upload the images by scanning them into reports.  By updating the process to an electronic interface we conduct real-time quality assurance of data and subsequently produce automated reports, saving time and increasing efficiency.  Also, by leveraging automation managed by a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system our WRFs can operate with limited personnel.  Our pump stations moreover are tied into a remote data acquisition system that sends alerts to cell phones and allows us to respond quickly when an issue is detected based on the data collected, no longer needing staff assigned to a particular area regularly.  This has helped the county leverage staff resources to focus more on proactive and productive tasks than on routine inspections.

Strategies to Complement Automation

While automation has helped us in creating more efficiency, our strategies to select the right partner for an asset management system have been instrumental as well.  We have looked for a partner who can deliver a seamless and easy-to-use interface, such that the field crews can use it with limited, easy to use training.  During the selection process we ask vendors to demonstrate their solution and select the best fit for us, gaining a more robust system that allows real-time data acquisition and also ensuring an easy-to-use interface for staff.

One of the more interesting projects we are currently employing is the decision support system (DSS) for prioritizing work in the 3,100 miles of pipe in the county’s collection system.  The DSS is in place to help us figure out the areas that need cleaning or rehabilitation based on current data.  We rank areas by feeding pipe segment data into the system.  The DSS then ranks the pipes according to criticality.  It can also indicate which sewer lines require rehabilitation or the quantity and type of repairs needed.  Jefferson County is currently under a federally-mandated Consent Decree to correct SSOs and that's where our DSS helps us identify priority areas and develop cost effective solutions.  We also use sonar technology to assess pipe condition, which in turn reduces SSOs.  In addition, the DSS provides information and recommendations for sewer cleaning from the available data.  Having this information allows us to address problem areas more frequently while reducing needless cleaning in other areas, saving money and increasing efficiency for our ratepayers.  For example, based on historical data uploaded into the system, the DSS gives us a priority listing and schedule for cleaning. It may prioritize a dense restaurant area or an area below a large multifamily residential complex to a more frequent cleaning schedule because of grease that historically entered the pipe.  The system also indicates when the pipes need to be re-lined or repaired, or where there may be capacity problems.  Bottom-line: this helps us in going through the full gambit of assessment.

The Need of the Hour

While automation has solved many of the problems for the utility sector, there is still a need for a knowledgeable and skilled workforce.  A common industry term is “the utility of the future, ”which must be attained with a trained, technologically savvy workforce; as we automate our facilities and employ more complex decision support and asset management systems, we need staff capable of interfacing with those systems.

The aging workforce in our industry is a serious issue and getting people interested in the water sector has been challenging.  As we move forward, our industry must train and employ staff willing to collect and review data and make informed decisions. The old days of collecting samples and manually turning valves are virtually gone.  While proper monitoring and understandingthe mechanical systems of a facility are still essential, we are looking at a workforce that, in addition to the basic operator functions, can repair and reprogram automated systems and interface with data collection systems to develop trends and monitor levels to maintain environmental compliance.

Looking towards the future we recommend industry professionals:

1.Start now to develop the future skilled workforce

2.Focus on improving efficiencies through automation and asset management

3.Be ready to adapt to changing technologies and, dare we say it, be prepared to think outside the box.

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